What Successful Leaders Now Wish They Knew Then

(This article is taken from the PeopleResults 2011 archives …)

Rear view mirror by Ken Lund

Hindsight is 20-20. We recently interviewed senior business leaders and asked them to look in the rear view mirror to see what we could learn. Their roles varied from CEOs of start-ups to top leaders of Fortune 500 companies across industries. Here are some pearls of wisdom these executives shared when we asked them, “What do you know now that you wish you knew 20 years ago?”

It’s not all about climbing the career ladder.

  • I wish I had…
    • Prioritized family and friends more.
    • Figured out my passions, interests, and natural strengths sooner. I wish I knew how important it was to get myself and others into roles where there’s a good fit.
    • Realized that happiness comes before money.
    • A deeper faith then.
    • Known that the Cubs were going to break my heart for the next 20 years.

Tasks, projects and technology need to fit into the bigger business goals and agenda.

  • I know now how critical it is to understand the bigger picture and how what I’m doing fits into that.
  • I wish I knew about the technical advances (e.g., internet, bandwidth) that would soon be here. And that customers would be willing to be served virtually.
  • The investment banking industry is really important in buying, selling, or being a part of something. (I didn’t have to deal with them when I was with a big company.)
  • I’ve learned how critical it is to be selective and pick the business situations where I can be most successful.

Good leadership takes skills, maturity and character.

  • I wish then that I had more general maturity and patience.
  • When a goal is tough to measure, it’s critical to set something to measure anyway – even if it’s less than 100% measurable.
  • Everything a leader does is mimicked.
  • It’s ok to make mistakes.

It’s all about people and relationships.

  • Understanding what drives people and building relationships is key.
  • I see now the importance of my network: who I know and how we leverage each other is huge. Understanding and navigating office politics is also crucial.
  • I appreciate the importance of good hiring decisions. Now, before hiring people, I meet with them at least 3 times in different settings. And when hiring an executive management team, I’ve learned to get to know them over time (2-5 years.) I plan ahead, look for potential, look at their character and reactions across various situations, and build the relationship and vision over time.
  • I wish I had known the value of teaming and relating effectively to get things done and to influence. I wish I had asked more for help and mentoring and that I understood my leadership style.
  • I better appreciate the art of listening: the importance of demonstrating that I heard and am considering what others said with an open mind (versus just critiquing and debating.)

Image by Ken Lund.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. In his work as a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps senior executives shorten the time horizon over which they say “I wish I would have known this back then.” You can reach him at jbaker@www.people-results.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr