Leadership… with a Little Help from Your Friends

Leadership Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum


Mary Jo softly told me; “I do a lot of little things.”

Mary Jo is the CEO of a fantastic mid-size company that develops software that tracts time-based billable projects and was part of the leadership survey we did to build the 11 shared leadership behaviors forming the foundation of our leadership platform, THE DNA OF SUCCESS.

I tilted my head and simply said; “Explain please.”

She shared; “I have a great team built around all that we do, fixing bugs, marketing, client relations, financial, you know, the big stuff that makes a company run, but a lot of cracks exist in any organization and things fall through, they fall through all the time. I try to catch those. I pay attention to those things. I know the big things are critical, but the little things matter too. I think good leaders spend time on little things that matter. By providing a key focus on this I get to see where we can use improvement.”

Ah, little things THAT MATTER.

Marry Jo gave me some examples:

  • THE PRESENCE FACTOR:   Good leaders need to be present. Not just in the boardroom, but all over the place. Mary Jo is religious about getting out of the office and making small visits with just about everyone in the company. In her company, they affectionately call these – Oh Hello – meetings. She genuinely wants to know what people are doing, what they are thinking, what problems she doesn’t know about. It is an engaging and very caring little thing that defines her style. She told me the stuff she learns is invaluable and actually impacts her decision making!

This small thing has been referred to as MANAGEMENT BY WANDERING AROUND. In Mary Jo’s situation, it is a LEADERSHIP trait. You can actually trace this style back to Abraham Lincoln who used to make informal surprise troop inspections and would stop and chat with the soldiers. Management guru’s Tom Peters and Bob Waterman shared that as a practice at Hewlett Packard in 1982 in their epic business book, In Search of Excellence.


  • HELP: Here’s a great little thing she told me; “I am in constant need of help”. What? “I need help, A LOT. I burned out my need for ego, or the belief that I know everything during the various war’s I fought to get a CEO position. I made so many mistakes that could have been avoided had I just asked for a little help. I’m not talking about abdicating decision making, but I will tell you this, when I need input I ask. Then I weigh the contributions and act.”

You would be surprised at how hard it is for leaders to ask for help. People look at them as the answer people, but the really good ones know what they know and what they don’t know. They look for solutions, not struggles. This little thing creates engagement and builds the confidence needed in successful teams.

I know big stuff is important, but it is often the small things, those elements in your leadership peripheral vision that can make all the difference.

Great leaders sweat the small stuff, the important small stuff!

As a leader, do you have your feet planted in the past?

I am a child of the west. Born in California. Lived in Idaho and now a long time Texas resident (I don’t think an outsider is ever a true Texan). I always marvel at travel back East. When a client says; “Take the train from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia, I furrow my brow and say, “Train?” When I hear the train I think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

During a recent trip east I watched an old-time engineer backing up his engine. He had his head craned out the window looking backward at the ground crew for hand signals. No rear view mirror on this engine, or simply an “old school” engineer. Trains are used to going forward.  They don’t often think about reversing. Leaders do.

During our two-year study into leadership (The DNA of Success), I was amazed at the role the rear view mirror played in great leaders. They were great at stopping, turning around and thinking about what they did. They were great decision reviewers.

From this key leadership characteristic, here are some of those rearview images.


Keeping Perspective in Leadership


  • THE SEARCH FOR PERFECTION: When you take time to look at how you responded to a leadership situation you quickly learn to forget about perfection. In leadership, it simply doesn’t exist. If it is your goal you can’t catch that leadership train. Mistakes, getting it wrong, missing a choice by an inch is just part of the deal. I love the quote that “perfection is the enemy of good.” Leaders love good.

  • NOT ENOUGH HELP: I can do this by myself, heck, I’m the leader. It’s my job to make the call. Every leader we interviewed talked about that learning moment where they figured out they couldn’t do this alone. Somewhere along the line, they were embraced; “I don’t know”. This is a classic mindset shift, a moment past a blind spot. I remember Israel Alpert, a tech/video leader using this little gem – PHELP – It stood for “Please HELP”.

  • WHO AM I LEADING? Leaders ask this question all the time. They check their past, both close and distant for key contact points, and don’t lose touch with their direct team. They check in further down the line and become VISIBLE. They hang out with their customers, ask questions, and listen. They check in!

Leadership is a process that centers on the two key timeframes.


  1. The Past – They are learners by experience and experience only teaches when you take a look back.

  2. The Future – They are required to shift their gaze from the learning past to peeking into the various potentials that could make up their tomorrows and the opportunities available to their organizations.

Some trains may not have review mirrors, but you should!

Give Them What They Want.

On April 4th, the first movie blockbuster of 2014, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, hit the big screen. In fact, it opened in over 3,900 movie theaters and brought in a tidy $95 million, making it the biggest April movie release in history! Most movie-goers had what I would call, “The usual movie experience.”

  • You stood in line for a while.
  • You entered the lobby only to see the traditional concession stand.
  • You bought a Dr. Pepper and some popcorn.
  • You chose a seat and mindlessly viewed the endless series of commercials before the previews.

All in all, the same movie experience that has been around since 1894, UNLESS you went to one of the Alamo Drafthouse theaters. This Texas based movie house chain has taken the client experience and positioned it as their strategic cornerstone.




Can you focus on the client experience to the point of creating enough market separation and differentiation so as to stand out? Can your experience be deemed unique in a vanilla market? You already know the answer, it’s a resounding YES. Let me remind you, the client experience is YOURS to control, YOURS to design, YOURS to deliver and nothing that happens in your market can impact a strategic focus on how you treat your clients. Here is what they are saying about The Alamo Drafthouse and what a laser like focus on the experience can mean to a business:

  • Best Theater in America – Entertainment Weekly
  • Coolest Movie Theater in the World – Wired Magazine
  • Best Theater Ever – Time Magazine

Founder and head honcho Tim League decided the market would support a theater chain designed for movie lovers. Movie-goers would love to combine going out to dinner and then a movie at the SAME PLACE! The Alamo Drafthouse is a movie theater, eatery, and bar all in one. How do you confront a business that has fallen into an expected model? Here is how Tim and his team attacked the stodgy old movie theater market in a very focused and strategic manner.



Design creativity as a core element of the movie experience. They do everything from sing-along musicals to classic movie nights. They decorate the lobby with big movie themes. During Captain America they had a photographer who would shoot you holding Captain America’s shield. Then there is The Lord of the Rings feast, where all three movies are shown and seven meals of JRR Tolkien themed food is served (Sold out every time by the way) Their Rolling Road Show (using a portable projector and screen) has shown area themed movies worldwide. Their famous Butt-Numb-A-Thon is a 24 hour movie marathon.

Alamo Creativity


No Advertising!

You will not sit through a series of car commercials at the Alamo Drafthouse. Instead, keeping with their creative wit, you are treated to everything from Three Stooges shorts to theme related cartoons and old movie clips. One of my favorite things about going to the Alamo Drafthouse is the pre-movie show montage. I am NEVER disappointed.



No Talking. No Texting. PERIOD!

Lots of theaters say this but they MEAN IT! One warning and out you go. No refund. They go to great lengthys to introduce these two simple rules with hilarious short films or the manager comes in and addresses the audience. One of their recent kicked out customers called and left a profanity laced complaint that the good folks at the Alamo Drafthouse used as an advertisement on why you should see your movies there. (Check out the censored version here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVz-fO7kxcQ). This went viral and Anderson Cooper called the Alamo Drafthouse ‘heroes in returning civility to the movies.’

dont talk


You are always challenged by the market, the competition, and the fight for business and sometimes the importance of the client experience is passed over. Our journey has been to keep a firm and critical focus on your client experience, looking for new ideas and opportunities to create business leverage in the things you control. Our job at Creative Ventures is to continue to open your mindes to the