Ken Stearns is a grandfather, father, midwestern boy, writer, speaker, photographer, and lyrist. As he winds down his decades-long insurance career, the influence of his travels, experiences, exposure to cultures, religions, and music is beginning to emerge. Ken continues to write with several projects in the works, and he enjoys photography and writes music.
Ken’s Rules is my insider’s collection of life and business strategies, an amalgamation of my personal experiences, key lessons that I picked up here and there and tested and refined throughout my 30-year career. Consider them analogies that you can readily apply to specific situations, theories you can learn and use — thoughts, concepts, and personal experiments that can raise your thinking, your frame of mind, and level up your career and daily life.
Many of these Rules are interconnected, and they play on each other. Yet, each one is flexible and dynamic and designed to be straightforward and adaptable to so many different situations, from the simple to the most complex, from work to home.
- Tom Yum Team Building: Balance your approach
- Delegate, Delegate, Delegate: Leverage your leadership
- Strategy, Structure, People: Perfect your organization
1. Tom Yum Team Building: Balance your approach
Provide an illustrative vision of team and organizational strength and balance through diversity
During the last 20 years, I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to Thailand for work and holiday, even calling Bangkok my home for three years. Perhaps the national dish is Tom Yum Goong, a spicy hot-and-sour soup that’s served at lunchtime or evening. It’s so versatile, it can be the focal point of the meal or a beautiful accompaniment.
Tom Yum is a marvel of opposites and misfits. Dominant flavors with strong character easily swirl with quiet, complementary ones. There is no exact recipe, and that’s the beauty of it. Each province, each city, each house has its own style, accentuating this or diminishing that to fine tune the taste to their own liking. Yet, throughout the country of Thailand, no matter the province, each house maintains the soup’s distinctive spine of flavors. Its flavor profile is unique yet authentic.
I love to look at team building in the same way. We need each part of the soup. Each ingredient is important and complementary, never to be left out, and the differences are celebrated, even joyfully anticipated.
A team that has a wide base, where each member is unique and plays a part in balance, is less risky, more holistic and sustainable, which strengthens the final product.
Unfortunately, however, managers often fall into the trap of surrounding themselves with people who view the world, the market, the staff and customers through the same lens they do, essentially creating a team or a group of individuals with no differences.
If things go well for a time, their behavior and their thinking are rewarded, and we have seen many examples of this in business and life. Their strategies continue until their way of thinking, their decision making, and strategies cause the business to eventually implode. I have seen things go poorly for these types of leaders, and their struggles lead to a bunker-style mentality more and more. They double-down on the thinking that made them successful before, which is ironically the very thinking that destroyed the business they led.
Hunkering down, they bring their confidants — those individuals who are most like-minded — closer and closer into the inner circle, drawing tighter. And as the crisis worsens, decision making and thinking becomes more inbred. This is a real leadership issue I have seen many times, and it’s hard to watch the leader struggle as the business struggles. But most painful is watching the staff around them and below them suffer through the crisis.
It’s true that building, developing, and managing a Tom Yum team is more challenging, and it requires a bigger commitment to stay on the course. It’s harder to bring together people with diverse backgrounds, cultures, experiences and knowledge to collectively focus on a single mission. It requires more communication, coaching, and patiently applying various course corrections, always striving to get the balance right.
Good leaders know this. They put the pieces together in such a way as to multiply the team’s capabilities. And in challenging times, the differences, the diversities, then become enablers to growth and strength.
You can almost equate a leader to a head chef and think of each team as preparing its part. The total assembly itself is of smaller teams and individuals who are focused on the finest details, rolling up each of their perfect dishes to be melded and mingled together for the final beautiful meal. And all the while, the head chef never touches a pan, a knife, or even a piece of meat. He watches and tastes, coaches, inspects, challenges and inspires, then inspires a bit more, pushing for the best that each team can do.
In addition, the breadth and complexity of business today cannot rely on just one set of chefs who know how to cook only certain dishes. The boardroom, executive committees, and management teams need to leverage a broad range of life experiences and ages, backgrounds, cultures, and viewpoints.
Today’s best leaders employ this approach and vision, to align with a direction that is clear and worthy, yet far away, beautiful, and ethereal. The direction is hard to ever touch, but no one can really argue it, and it aligns everyone. These leaders hire the best people they can find from the farthest away places, and I mean this in a diverse way — a diversity in experience in various companies and markets, in worldviews, in cultures and countries, and in technical and domain expertise.
The final product of Tom Yum team building is high performing, resilient, and impactful. A team gets its strengths from its diversity and its leader, who assembles it in perfect balance.
Next week: Rule #2. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate: Leverage your leadership