Some leadership advice is obvious. Some of it is stuff you learned in kindergarten (please, thank you). But every so often, you'll encounter some real--and relevant--pearls of wisdom, the sort of guidance you can't just find in any bookstore or blog. Here are seven of best leadership tips Inc. had to offer in 2015.
1. It's time to invest in your employees' health in a big way.
Carey Smith, the founder and CEO of $165-million Big Ass Solutions in Lexington, Kentucky, makes the case that your company will see a lasting ROI if you make a large investment in the health of your employees. Specifically, Smith urges founders to provide not just run-of-the-mill benefits but the works: an on-site health clinic with free appointments with a nurse practitioner and a lunchroom serving subsidized healthy food. It's one thing when you hear these arguments from wellness evangelists or large public companies with tons of cash resources. But when a dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur like Smith makes the case for a big spend on health in the era of the Affordable Care Act, you'd be wise to listen.
2. Get rid of most meetings.
One of the joys of being a founder is that you have a strong hand in shaping your company's culture--and making sure it doesn't fall into the management traps that have plagued growing businesses for decades. Founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield tells Inc. that he envisions $2.8-billion Slack as an antidote to dysfunctional work cultures that are plagued by meetings. "There are bad habits in certain workplaces that develop around control of information--people hoarding information, or only disclosing things to certain people as a means of preserving their own power," he said. And if you like Butterfield's thinking about meetings, then you'll really enjoy our profile of Slack as our 2015 company of the year.
3. Work with your ideal customer in mind.
In the rush for revenues, in the race to increase the sheer number of clients you have, it can be easy to drop your ideals and simply do what needs to be done to close a sale. Entrepreneur Maria Haggerty's article about the lessons she's learned from her customers provides a superb reminder of why it pays to focus your vision on your ideal customer, despite the fiscal pressures to please everyone.
Haggerty learned this lesson observing how the CEO of one of her clients, a fashion brand, turned his company around by focusing on the ideal end customer--the woman buying the apparel. In this way, the CEO aligned his employees around a clear, meaningful purpose. Watching this inspired Haggerty to do the same for her own business, Dotcom Distribution, a B-to-B and B-to-C e-commerce logistics company whose clients have included Birchbox, Adore Me, and Vineyard Vines. "We know that our clients can't, and therefore we can't, expect long-term success if our team is not delivering the exact brand experience that our clients commit to their customers," she writes.
4. If you don't know your "why," you're headed for trouble.
Most founders are big fans of Simon Sinek, a guru of purpose-based leadership and author of the seminal leadership book Start With Why. In an Inc. live chat back in May, Twitter users submitted questions to Sinek about a wide range of entrepreneurial topics. Sinek's answers are as pithy and insightful as you'd expect. For instance, one reader asked if Sinek had any examples of companies who had to change their "why" or purpose in midstream. His answer: "You can't change your why. The only way to change it is if it's its been decimated or destroyed prior. Usually when companies change it, it's because they've made so many decisions in the wrong direction that they're forced to change it back. Not that they've really changed it, but it's become fuzzy and they've had to reclaim it. The Gap has done this, Walmart has done this."
5. If you don't know your role as the leader, you're in even bigger trouble.
This story is the fourth in Michael E. Gerber's four-part series on Inc.com about what he believes are the four dimensions of the entrepreneurial personality: The Dreamer, The Thinker, The Storyteller, and The Leader. Gerber says that the leader is the person who "defines and communicates the organization's Mission--a prototype of what it will look like when the dream becomes reality--and has the ultimate responsibility for making it happen." Gerber has spent a career studying and guiding entrepreneurs. His bestselling book, The E-Myth Revisited, has sold more than 5,000,000 copies. He has a knack for boiling the complex company-building process into questions that cut to the heart of the matter, such as: What reality have you created? Is it a reality that reflects the original Dream, or has it become distorted? Are you taking ownership of what you created, or has the current reality taken ownership of you?
6. Always know what your best employees want from their jobs.
Author and Inc. columnist David Finkel tells the tale of an entrepreneur who is shocked and angry when two top employees leave his organization at a critical time. His anecdote illustrates an essential blind spot of many founders: They're so driven pursuing what they want, they sometimes neglect to ask key employees what it is that they want from their jobs.
7. If you want great performances from your employees, start with clear expectations.
Inc. columnist John Brandon asked founders and CEOs to share the wisdom that has helped them do their jobs. His list is full of counterintuitive surprises, including one gem from a CEO who learned what not to do by watching Steve Jobs. "Steve didn't set defined expectations for me or other employees," notes James Green, serial entrepreneur and CEO of technology company Magnetic. "Watching him operate made me recognize the importance of clarity and transparency with my team, and how imperative it is to set expectations and effectively communicate with them."