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Q-and-A: How Jeff Lesher helps leaders embrace their success

7 min read


Jeff Lesher is the founder and head coach at Conduce, a business for life coaching and executive consulting. Lesher has more than 20 years of experience helping individuals and businesses perform at a higher level, ensuring long-term success. SmartBrief interviewed Lesher about his work. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Describe your leadership philosophy.

This answer is a bit on the long side because it is the essence of what determines success and often is glossed over with undefined and, therefore, meaningless terms. Each leader has to draw on his or her strengths to maintain the authenticity that may be the key to ultimate success. There are common themes of leadership success that authenticity alone can’t replace.

Let’s look first at leadership in terms of the responsibilities leaders have within their organizations. They establish focus through the organization’s purpose — what its work will help achieve, which I often position as a question they must answer: “What value do you create for others, and why should they care?”

Leaders then develop the ways in which they and their teams will pursue the fulfillment of this core purpose (their strategies) and determine ways that we can chart progress and otherwise keep score regarding how we’re doing (goals). To execute, we need to know not only what to do but also how to do it. Each organization creates a culture based on the behaviors that it values because they are believed to promote and sustain success.

The philosophy, then, is how leaders need to behave to bring this structure to life. Leaders represent the organization externally, they inspire and motivate in and out of the organization through vision and sponsorship (much more than coaching and mentoring), and they provide resources and remove obstacles more globally (versus a manager who acts more locally). These macro traits of vision, sponsorship and “resourcing” are embedded in each of the success behaviors that define their culture rather than tacked onto a competency model as an afterthought.

Moreover, these components of leadership are fully enabled only when leaders communicate effectively. This requires that they control the message by providing information before someone else’s story fills the breech. They must listen and ask questions to guide and develop problem-solving skills in others. And effective leaders must provide their people with the reason something is important and show them how their work individually and collectively is contributing to the organization’s success.

With all of that as the underpinnings of my belief system about leadership, I’d say that my philosophy is that leadership is active; it’s a choice, and it’s ongoing and can be hard work. With leadership, we can intentionally pursue and realize our aspirations — in large part by allowing others to make decisions and take actions within the broad parameters we set that relate to how we create value and why you should care.

Without leadership, we might succeed intermittently and without design, making sustainable success unlikely and our daily effort much more of a struggle than a labor of love. It’s not good for business or for us. I believe in the power of inclusion — that it leads to magnificent creativity and innovation. I believe that what others know has great value. And I believe that great leaders share that sense and are inspired by what others may know and do — not fearful of it — and that represents the “secret” of their success.

Why did you pick Conduce as the name of your company?

A few reasons, in no particular order:

  • It’s not my name, and the work we do is about more than one person.
  • It’s a verb, and change that breeds success requires action.
  • It means to “help bring about a particular outcome” … which I tweaked to be a “positive” outcome.

Each of us has the power and responsibility to help contribute to a positive outcome in all facets of our lives. My passion is to help people clarify what their contribution to an outcome can and should be, to support them in laying out and pursuing an action plan to contribute directly and through others, and in helping them celebrate their successes and further challenge themselves, their colleagues, their organization and their communities.

Your website lists “good humor” as essential to execution, which is very un-business-school of you. Why do you include that?

I take some issue with humor being un-business-school because — at minimum — the study of business is about providing tools and approaches to maximize results. Last time I checked, creativity and innovation are on the masthead of almost every leading business program. There are many studies showing creativity, and the innovation to which it can lead, are bolstered by humor and having fun.

It’s also true that people are attracted to and retained by organizations where they feel positively about the people with whom they work. There is ample literature addressing motivation and the lengths to which people will go to support a boss or colleague they hold in high regard. The converse is the corrosive effect bad leaders and others have on us, as chronicled in books such as Robert Sutton’s “The No A–hole Rule.” But even more than the science behind it, just ask yourself if you perform better as a dwarf (whistling while you work) or as Bob Cratchit before Scrooge’s epiphany.

You count entrepreneurs among your regular clients. What is the most common mistake you see them make when trying to move out of the startup phase?

It’s less a mistake than an incomplete understanding of what’s required to move from a cult of personality to a sustainable, delegated business. It’s essentially the E-Myth concept of needing to work on the business versus work in it and figuring out what that really means. My primary approach includes these elements.

  • Get what’s important to you about what your business does and how you want your people to represent you in the business out of your head and onto paper (especially your core purpose and success behaviors).
  • Define and accept your role as the leader versus the lead practitioner — or give up on your idea of expanding the business (see above for the definition of leadership).
  • Acknowledge that you are the root cause when things aren’t happening, aren’t happening at the pace you want or aren’t happening in the way you want … and that you can change that reality to what you do want (likely with the guidance of a capable executive coach — which, by the way, is not someone who used to work in your field and now “coaches”).

Let’s say a newly promoted executive comes to you asking for advice on making the leap from middle management. What’s your best advice for this person?

There actually are a number of things I would ask first, including:

  • What does success look like for you and others?
  • What do you understand your role to be?
  • How comfortable are you asking questions to help people discover their own solutions?
  • How likely are people to come to you with information you may not want to hear?

Starting with answers to at least a couple of the questions, I’d then have a better handle on the exec’s sense of how the work one does has to fundamentally shift when he or she takes on a leadership role. I’m as likely to find someone who has great instincts but lacks some of the confidence to follow through on them as the person might as someone who falls into the trap of trying to do more of the work that earned him or her the chance to contribute in a different way.

My best advice? Find time and opportunity to connect with your people — asking questions and listening to them; look for opportunities to provide specific, positive feedback with no “buts” or “howevers”; and make sure to provide them with a resource they need (even a contact) or remove an obstacle from their path … and make sure they know you did. And, more than anything, speak and act in a way that shows them that you are engaged, you care and you are doing your part to help everyone there succeed.