Leadership, Part I

By Bill Kenney

Two months ago I traveled to Atlanta with copilots and fellow Focus Lab team members Erik Reagan and Alicja Colon. We ventured north to attend what turned out to be an extremely inspiring conference called LeaderCast.

Leadership 1

This year’s conference theme was “Simply Lead,” and upon leaving Atlanta at the event’s end, I found myself facing a rather giant list of areas where I needed to grow. Most importantly, I fully realized the importance of not taking the leadership role - and the skills that demands - lightly.

This post series is a bit of a rewind, shining some light on where I am today and how I got here, while reflecting on what I absorbed over that weekend and how I want to grow into my leadership role. Warning: I get personal.

A Little Backstory

I was raised in quaint Oak Bluffs, located on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. (Aside: like many a high-profile vacation environment, the people that actually live on Martha’s Vineyard are the plumbers, fisherman, and everyday blue collar folks, my family among them.) I was a lukewarm student with a less-than-promising future that only improved because of my parent’s insistence that I leave “the Rock” - local-speak for the Vineyard - and get out in the real world.

Two years into a small junior college in Massachusetts and I still had my head up my ass. It wasn’t until I transferred to the University of Tampa that I first tasted great leadership and, because of that, my own potential. (Mom and Dad, you were solid all along, I just wasn’t mature enough to recognize and value it.)

And, what do you know, over the next eight years I became a 4.0 art student, then a focused individual who moved to Savannah to get a Masters Degree in Fine Art at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Soon, I developed an entrepreneurial itch, which led me to proposition Erik, my business partner, to consider global takeover (so to speak).

Fast forward three years and we have built a successful business and great company culture that allows our team to shine and fosters an environment where, now, 11 people love coming to work. And yet, none of these successes speak to my leadership abilities. Truthfully, it wasn’t until LeaderCast that I really got inspired about taking leadership more seriously. I can’t be Jack Welch in a week’s time but I’m freshly committed to grow as a leader and not take it lightly.

Game Changer

First off, having a great business partner has been paramount for me. (Props, Erik Reagan!) If it wasn’t for him, many of these learning conferences would pass me by as I Dribbble the day away. He is instrumental in making sure that the team members and I are bettering ourselves and reaching for short- and longer-term goals. When he suggested the trip I didn’t think twice.

I’ve realized that I absorb information better face-to-face. Meaning that I take more away from these events than I do from the pages of a book. When you hear someone like Jack Welch shoot from the hip and talk like a real person, cutting right to it without fancy terms and buzzwords, injecting humor and heartfelt experiences, that is what most excites me. We often put people on pedestals, which makes them somehow superhuman. But then you realize that these are just people who set out to do great things and treat others with respect along the way.

Navy Seal Commander Rorke Denver spoke at the conference about leading his men into battle. He actually led them, a first-foot-in/last-foot-out kinda guy. Then he choked up reading a passage about the 300 Spartan soldiers who defended against an insurmountable force and the type of devotion to a cause that takes. I couldn’t help but want to lead like these men, to be human, caring, strong, and to inspire greatness.

The difference between good and great leadership can define the success and, more importantly, the happiness and loyalty of your entire company.

Event Speakers & Key Takeaways

Andy Stanley

The first LeaderCast speaker was Andy Stanley, a huge name in this arena, who dove right into the idea of “Power in Simplicity.” His message was straight to the point: keep your goals and daily routine as clear as possible. And have a North Star that you are always balancing against and keeping your eye on. Giving a personal example, there was a time he felt scatter-brained and his business was suffering because of it. So, he wrote the following questions on a sticky note:

  • What are we doing?
  • Why are we doing it?
  • Where do I fit in?

And there you have it, his North Star. For everything he did going forward, he weighed it against these three questions. They helped him define action items, validate their motivations, and see his role. Clarity was a large part of his talk, “Clarity is key; mist in your mind becomes a fog in the organization.”

Takeaway: Keeping a clear mind with clear goals will allow you to lead more effectively.

David Allen

Next, I heard David Allen’s talk on how “Crisis Evokes Clarity.” He elaborated on the notion that flexibility trumps perfection, relative to agile methodology and the ability to execute and ship things. It also relates to time blocking and the idea of working within restraints. Even though his story was in a different context it was relevant to our industry, specifically workflow and maximizing efficiency.

One night years before, he and his wife struggled to save their 30-foot sailboat from shipwreck on rocks just off the coastline where their anchorline had broken. I can’t do justice to the stressful and dramatic story, but the gist is: When you are up against the wall and need to step up in a rescue situation, you are completely and utterly focused on that one task. At that moment, he could have given two shits if his phone fell overboard, or if his stock broker sent an email, because he had a single goal: stay alive by keeping this powerless, windless, now-anchorless ship off of those huge rocks. At that moment of complete focus he found an on-the-spot solution and kept the boat in one piece.

So what does that have to do with me?

Self-imposed constraints, or, as Allen calls it, “time boxing,” facilitate execution rather than enabling an endless search for the perfect pixel arrangement. If I know I have two hours to accomplish something, I focus and get it done. (Don’t confuse this with procrastination.) Whereas, if I have 12 hours to do something, I am easily bothered by tasks that can steal priority, resulting in increased time to complete the task. This is particularly true of designers, who will design and design (and design and design and design) endlessly.

Takeaway: Constraints beget focus.

Part II is now up. Featuring Coach K, Jack Welch, and a seriously tear-jerking talk by Rorke Denver. (And, more importantly, what it all means for me.)…