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Don’t lead with your head down

I wish every business leader could have been with me earlier this month for a powerful week of being inspired. Too many of us bury our heads in our offices and miss out on the growth and innovation that come with simply being “out there.” The very different speakers and panels at three separate events that week (the ACG Rocky Mountain Corporate Growth Conference; the Colorado Companies to Watch finalist reception; and WILD Summit) shared a common theme: effective leaders are continual learners, creating a culture of continuous improvement in their organizations.

By leaving your office, you open yourself up to learning and, by sharing new thoughts and ideas, inspire people throughout your organization to do great work. Following are some of the tips that I learned while I was out of the office. I hope they will inspire you to action.

Adapt or fail.

General Stanley McChrystal, keynote at the ACG conference, advises not to get too comfortable with the status quo. Pointedly, we had enough intelligence to know that 9-11 would happen, but the various agencies weren’t talking to one another. We did not adapt our organizational chart to the scattered and unpredictable way the enemy was operating. We let our own hubris get in the way of success. Teams need a shared consciousness, common purpose and trusting environment to create a culture of continuous improvement, and execute in an informed and empowered way.

Manage all information coming into your company.

John Kelley, CEO of CereScan, suggests that leaders regularly hold scenario and “what if” planning sessions and decide how they will respond in each case. He says to be swift and consistent with your actions, and make certain that they align with your values. Read the newspaper, do SWOT analyses every six months, and spend time with customers. All of this will help you deliver good value every time you’re in front of your clients.

You’ll never prosper if you create a culture of fear.

Overused, but true: people are your only sustainable asset. Show them that you understand this. They are the ones who deliver. Don’t be indecisive or make your people indecisive. In a culture of continuous improvement, transparency is the key. Face your mistakes, fix them, learn from them and avoid making them again. And, above all, be brave enough to measure your mistakes. If you’re fearless, you’ll create a fearless culture.

Take the lead, don’t wait for it to be given.

Leadership is about creating “wow” moments for everyone around you, according to Colleen Abdoulah, CEO of WOW! Internet, Cable and Phone, and keynote speaker at WILD Summit. Inspiring wow motivates people to feel and do their best—and it can’t be done behind a desk and a door.


Listening may be a CEO’s most important trait. Truly listen to your employees, your customers, your vendors, your peers and your advisors. That means actually hearing what they have to say, going beyond the actual words to the thoughts and emotions behind them.


Keep track of the things your people do. Recognize them when they do well and, when they make mistakes, be nurturing and caring when you hold them accountable. Sit down with them, analyze what happened and make their mistakes teachable moments. Make sure that your supervisors and managers handle mistakes in the same way. The goal is improvement, not punishment.

Continual learning is contagious and leads to better communication, higher trust, greater innovation and superior results, among other things. As the WILD Summit stated, go out and “Learn and share. Inspire and be inspired.” This should be a priority for every business leader.

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Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Kathleen Quinn Votaw serves on the Board of Directors for both the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Denver and Colorado Companies to Watch. She is also founder and CEO of TalenTrust, a Denver-based professional services firm that helps high growth companies solve the people puzzle.TalenTrust offers strategies to attract, retain and engage talented people. Reach Kathleen at kvotaw@talentrust.com or 303-838-3334.

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