Leadership Lessons: Lead Now or Forever Hold Your Place!

3 min read | Susan Colantuono

Business woman looking at keyhole with bright cityscape concept background-1

Leadership isn’t something you wait to do when you become a CEO. Lead now or forever hold your place!


I was in D.C. facilitating a strategic planning meeting. The new CEO walked into the room, sat down with the senior managers and said, "I’d like each of you to give me an estimate of the percent of time you spend managing operations and the percent you spend identifying strategic opportunities to improve the organization."

One by one they replied and a pattern became clear. They were spending about 80% of their time attending to existing operations and 20% on strategic opportunities.


"Not good enough. I expect you to spend 70% looking for strategic opportunities to improve the organization’s margin, service and market share and 30% on operations," he challenged.

I knew these managers. Their VP described all of them as good performers. "After all," he said, "they meet their goals every year." And several of them were focused on changing and improving their operations – though several of them were not. Yet even those who were focused on operational improvements didn’t describe themselves as identifying strategic opportunities to improve margin, service and market share.

Why? Is it because they weren’t making strategic improvements to impact key metrics? Not necessarily. But certainly, it’s because they didn’t understand the business of their business and couldn’t describe the clear line of sight between what they were doing and the key outcomes of the organization.

Can these managers be described as leading? In the eyes of the CEO, no. Can they become good leaders? In some cases, yes.

What will it take?

Great leaders, at any level of the organization (from individual contributor, to supervisor, to manager to executive) understand with increasing clarity the business of their business. They know what key measures are indicators of organizational performance. They know how they and their reporting teams drive those metrics. They are able to conceptualize their work in this larger strategic context and to seek the right opportunities for driving measures in the right direction.

Without this understanding, no matter how good your performance is, no matter how well you hit your numbers, no matter how frequently you meet deadlines, no matter how many hours you invest; you are ultimately not going to be viewed as a leader. You will be stuck right where you are!

So, no matter your current level in the organization, learn the business of your business. What’s the process stream that generates cash? Who are your key external stakeholders and how do they measure your organization’s performance? What are the key internal indicators of organizational performance and where you can find them? What customers is your business targeting and what are the organization’s acquisition and retention strategies?

Then, whether you are an individual contributor or have reporting staff(s), learn how to view your responsibilities in this larger strategic context. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Can I draw a direct line between what I’m responsible for and those measures? Do I make this direct line clear to my reporting staffs and/or colleagues?

  • Do I treat as high priority my activities that have the greatest impact on these measures? Do I help my reporting staffs and/or colleagues stay focused on these priorities

  • Am I focused on improving processes in order to drive these measures? Do I keep my staff and/or colleagues focused on improving processes to drive these measures?

If you can answer yes to these questions, you are positioned to lead. If you can’t, you aren’t.

In other words, learn the business of your business and lead now, or forever hold your place!