Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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How to get from where you are to where you want to be

What do you do when you fall?

“Why do we fall, sir? So that we might learn to pick ourselves up.” Alfred (Batman Begins)

I was having an interesting discussion with a friend yesterday about the economic climate and the alarming rate of business closures in multiple sectors. We were sharing personal stories about how we had dealt with difficult times in our respective businesses and what things kept us plugging away even when it seemed to be the end of the road. I am sure you understand that problems are part and parcel of starting a new business or being part of a new venture. Some problems will be larger than others but you never really quite run out of them. When you solve a specific challenge in a particular segment of your business it does sometimes manifest itself in another aspect of it.

For example, suppose your business is struggling with sales generation. After brainstorming and overcoming that problem, the next challenge is often managing the inflow of new orders which the business may not be equipped to do. This forms a cycle where it is possible to continue moving forward and facing new challenges as they appear. However, it is not usually as simple as that. There are three potential stages we can go through when facing a challenge.

1. Ignore it: How many times have we been faced with a problem either of a personal nature or in a professional aspect of our life and chosen to ignore it. There have been many times that I can personally recall where we knew something was wrong with the way our business was doing a certain process yet we never changed it. Wanting a different reaction from the same action is unfortunately something that many of us find ourselves doing when we do not want to move out of our comfort zones. We pretend that our problems do not exist or are not affecting us and hope for a miraculous change. Unfortunately that usually never comes and most of the time we just end up amplifying the problems.

2. Blame somebody: This is probably the most used excuse whenever we are faced with a problem. The economy is bad, my partner cheated me, we lost our star sales person, we do not have the funds or I am not skilled enough. This is another easy way to deal with problems. We shift the blame to anyone we can, including ourselves sometimes in the face of problems we cannot pass on. This creates a detrimental and negative cycle that ends up sapping all motivation and drive we may have left in ourselves and we let our environment condition us in whatever way it deems fit. This is giving up  control in our lives by burying our head in the sand.

3, Solution: The most productive thing we can do for ourselves whenever we face a problem is to correctly identify it, document where it is stemming from, brainstorm with individuals who will be able to pinpoint pain areas and develop a set of options that can help us deal with them. As start ups, we go through some tough challenges such as getting your first big reference customer, securing funding or convincing a star player to join your team. We have to look at each of these problems with an open mind and no matter how many times we fall down, we must learn the lesson inherent in the fall, then learn to pick ourselves up again.

Most of the things discussed in this post may appear extremely obvious. I mean who wants to admit that they are actually not dealing effectively with a problem that they may have in their life. I recommend getting a piece of paper and writing down all the major problems that you may be facing in life right now whether of a personal or business nature. Next, identify how you are dealing with these problems. We are often surprised to discover that we focus so much on the fact that we have these problems, that we forget to think of  necessary solutions. In order to move forward we need to understand that problems are a natural part of life, the quality of our lives however depends primarily on how we deal with them.

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5 Reasons to Co-Work

“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.” Paul J. Meyer

I started this week talking about co-working as it is an opportunity I am actively looking into at the moment. Given that it is a relatively new concept, many of the individuals I talk to about this have a host of questions regarding what co-working is all about, and ask why they should leave the comfort of their home offices for this. In response to these questions I have created a list of five leading reasons why one should choose to co-work over working from home or a cafe.

1. Networking Opportunities: I believe this is one of the most important reasons why anyone should choose to work at a co-working zone vis a vis working from home, a cafe or a small office. Having the ability to meet new people on a regular basis not only helps us grow as individuals, it provides us with opportunities to take our business to the next level. Networking is an integral part of every entrepreneur’s journey. Integrating it into our busy lives is however always a challenge. Working from a co-working zone makes the integration into our daily routine seamless and also increases the probability of success. To learn more about the benefits of networking from a co-working zone please click here.

2. Accelerated Serendipity: Serendipity is the accidental learning of something while searching for something completely different. As small business owners in the process of starting up or even searching for ideas on what they want to do, co-working is an excellent option to get the creative juices flowing and who knows, perhaps you could stumble onto the next big thing! The constant interaction with individuals from all walks of life provides a great sounding board and accelerates the process of finding your true calling. To learn more about accelerated serendipity please click here.

3. Increased Productivity: Individuals who have worked from home offices realize how challenging it is to be self disciplined and motivated. Co-working zones provides co-workers with a renewed sense of motivation often accelerated when everyone around them has got their head down and getting things done. Also, having others hold you accountable is another factor which motivates individuals to complete planned tasks and projects. To learn more on how to be more productive in a co-working zone please click here.

4. Operating Advantages: In the short term operating from a co-working space may seem to be an expensive option for an independent business owner. However, taking a slightly longer time frame of 6-9 months, operating benefits of a co-working space become immediately apparent. Working from such a space provides business owners the ability to project a professional image, space to increase staff and even share larger purchases. For entrepreneurs and consultants who have large aspirations and want to increase the scale of their business without incurring huge initial costs, co-working zones are an ideal solution. To learn more about the operating advantages of co-working please click here.

5. Work/Life Balance: If you are working from home you understand that the line between your work and life become gray and shadowy. Getting a balance is a critical aspect of life. Without it there are always far too many sacrifices that need to be made and that have major repercussions in the future. There is also the case of burnout, and losing interest in what you do for a living. Most importantly it is your friends and family who are most affected if your work/life balance is not correct. So whether it is through a co-working space or any other way, one should make a resolution to bring a greater degree of balance to life in 2009. To learn more on how you can balance work and life through co-working please click here.

A concern that is brought up repeatedly, is one of cost. As mentioned in reasons #4 co-working zones provide entrepreneurs the ability to scale operations as and when needed. This is in itself a huge advantage which justifies the cost of operating from such a space. Apart from that, for consultants who do not have plans to scale operations, the cost of renting space is usually the same as compared to the price of having endless cups of coffee from your local cafe on  a regular and daily basis. In addition to this, one gets access to networking opportunities, idea generation, increased productivity and help in maintaining a work/life balance. Thus if you are currently working from home or a cafe, looking into co-working spaces in 2009 may just be your best alternative.

* If you currently looking into joining a co-working space but are still unsure, I would appreciate it if you let me know your concerns and I will do my best to resolve them. By the same token, if you currently work at a co-working zone please let me know any additional reasons why individuals should choose operating from a co-working zone. Thank you.

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Work/Life balance

Just as your car runs more smoothly and requires less energy to go faster and farther when the wheels are in perfect alignment, you perform better when your thoughts, feelings, emotions, goals, and values are in balance. Brian Tracy quotes

For those of us who have worked from home for a period of time, we know that the entire concept of achieving a work/life balance goes out the window. Mornings are spent in your pajama’s answering all your emails, meals are finished in a flash and we find ourselves somewhat trapped till the wee hours of the morning finishing our work. The entire concept of leaving your work at the office is non-existent and it seems that you are working or attempting to work whenever possible. Ok, so this is somewhat exaggerated, but there are definitely days which go exactly like the one outlined above. It does not take a doctor to tell us this is not a very healthy way to live your life. Sure, the whole concept of getting dressed and heading off to work at 6am in the morning is not something I would really like doing either, but a balance needs to be drawn somewhere in the middle.

A co-working space provides the opportunity to get that level of balance. First off, the feeling that you have to get up and get to a place will be a positive change. It gets you into the habit of actually fixing your internal wiring which tends to go out of whack. It is important that one is motivated enough to actually get up and get to work. This is why it is critical to first test out the co-working space you are wanting to join and see whether it is a place you could find yourself being in everyday. The whole objective of working for yourself is to free yourself from the pressure of having to go to an office come rain or shine. So choose wisely. Once you are done for the day your primary computer can be left at the space and you could use those couple of hours to network, learn something new or go and have fun. It is important that balance be brought into your life.

Getting balance is a critical aspect of life. Without it there are always way too many sacrifices that need to be made that have major repurcussions in the future. There is also the case of burnout, and losing interest in what you  do for a living. Most importantly it is your friends and family who are most affected if your work/life balance is not correct. So whether it is through a co-working space or any other way, one should make a resolution to bring a greater degree of balance to life in 2009.

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Operating Advantages

“If we do a good job, customers pay us more for our products than the sum of our costs in producing and distributing them. This difference, our profit, represents the value we add to the resources we utilize.” David Packard

A large majority of independents work from their homes. This could be a room which they have set up with all their equipment etc. To maintain this room they need to incur a one time capital expense and then they are pretty much able to get by just paying the monthly bills. This sounds ideal to some and they find the entire concept of getting out of their house and going to work at another place quite ridiculous. However I beg to differ from this point of view. Having worked from home for a period of time I came to realize that there were a number of things which restricted me from scaling upwards. The fact that I worked from home sometimes worried clients about whether I would be in business tomorrow or if I could handle increased levels of workload. This is always a worry especially when you need to hire additional individuals to assist in the completion of a project. With co-working this perception is somewhat nullified as the place provides ample space to ramp up your operations at a moment’s notice.

The cost of ramping up operations is an expensive one and sometimes it is only needed for a stipulated period of time. Say you are a web developer and have got a massive project. It requires you to house at least 2-3 other resources who may not need to be at your office all the time but frequent interaction will be required. It also requires you to provide the client updates and this could mean frequent visits to your office. Essentially what you require is a little more space and a meeting room. This is a huge headache because you know you will not require this after the project is completed. Co-working is hence an ideal solution for you if you are currently in this predicament.

Some co-working spaces I visited involved a bunch of individuals pooling together to buy themselves expensive equipment such as large scale printers, projectors or servers. They were also able to utilize the business address of the co-working space to project a more professional image. The last important point which was brought up by many co-workers was that they were paying the same amount for the rent of the space as they were paying for coffee everyday at coffee shops. The cost of Latte’s tends to add up very quickly when working at these spaces. In conclusion, many co-workers were able to potentially keep their costs the same or increase them slightly to get a whole range of facilities that would not have been possible on their own.

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Increased Productivity

“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the recurring points made by many of the individuals working at co-working spaces was the level of increased productivity once they joined the space. When I explored this matter deeper there were several core factors which led to why this was taking place. Looking back at my own example, I always work better when I am working as a team. Ideas flow faster, feedback is instant and it is generally a lot more fun. It is when you have to work in isolation that one feels that one does hit a brick wall once too often. The core factors that contributed to this level of increased productivity were:

1. Increased Interaction: Working in isolation is not a lot of fun. From the brief research that I conducted, people generally feel a lot more creative and energetic when they are surrounded by others. Now these are not just some other people, they are individuals who share same interests, hobbies or even values. This helps to create rapport and a level of interaction which goes beyond just the trivial chit chat that you could be involved in at a coffee house.

2. Motivation: Ever been working on a report, blog post or project and half way through decided that you wanted to watch the latest Heroes episode, and before you knew it hours had flown by? I have many times. However the story is completely different when I am surrounded by co-workers or people who are working hard on their respective projects or assignments. A co-working space provides you with this atmosphere and it makes it a lot easier to stay on course and get motivated by those around you.

3. Accountability: Ever joined a gym and dropped out after the initial month of fervor? I have, and I am guessing there are many more people out there who have probably had similar experiences. However, when I got a gym buddy things changed, I became regular, made fewer excuses and lasted a lot longer. At a co-working space one can find many such individuals who can ask each other to hold them accountable to ensure that they finish a certain project or report. This creates a level of accountability which motivates you to get the job done.

The points listed above are just a few reasons why I believe people were more productive in a co-working environment. In the end it does however depend on your personality and attitude towards life. What are your objectives? How committed are you to get them? Even the most committed individuals find themselves slacking at times. It is only natural, and it is at times like these that you need someone to give you that shove or to get you motivated enough to reach your goals.

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5 Steps to Better Startup Leadership

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There is a school of thought which believes that leaders are born, not made. Others believe the same applies to entrepreneurs. I have yet to see any conclusive evidence to support these claims. I am a firm believer that, with enough passion, hard work and ambition, anyone can achieve what they set out to do. Wanting to become a great leader is undoubtedly a most challenging task. Volumes have been written about leadership skills and how to develop them. However, inspiration and understanding concepts from books will only get you so far. If you really want to test your abilities and believe that you have what it takes to be a leader, you must stand up and take responsibility. It is all about being action oriented and wanting to bring out the best in the people who work with you. 

Over the course of the week I have written about five areas I believe younger startup leaders need to become more effective in. I have seen the positive impact on a team’s productivity, motivation and drive when a leader has focused on the following segments:

1. Vision Development: As a leader, it is your initial responsibility to create a vision with your team, one which is strongly rooted in SMART goals. The team must feel and think that the vision is achievable, and know what action steps need to be taken to reach it. It is only when a vision statement becomes more than a piece of paper, will we actually see a boost in productivity of the overall team. To read more about the importance of creating a vision please click here.

2.  Leaders Attitude: A leader’s attitude is usually the defining difference between a good team and a great team. With the right attitude, we assist the team break down mental barriers which may be holding them back, take away the fear of making mistakes and generally help them push themselves further. Pay closer attention to attitude, it should result in a team having higher productivity,and being more motivated and driven to reach their goals. To read more about the importance of a leader’s attitude please click here.

3. Culture of Candor: The ability to express one’s thoughts, opinions and concerns, free from discrimination is something I believe needs to be infused into every team. As a leader, there must be a focus on breaking down psychological barriers which may be holding certain team members back. Being candid allows the team to work more effectively, brings more ideas to the tables as well as issues which may be disrupting the team internally, to the forefront. To learn more about the importance of candor please click here.

4. Resource Allocation: During your startup journey, you will need to make several key decisions regarding resource allocation. A startup without proper allocation of resources, ends up in difficult situations, which may result in layoffs, discontinuing product/services, drop in quality, overburdening of some assets and may even require shutting the business down as a whole. As a leader, it is your responsibility to put systems into place to allocate resources optimally through a structured and rigorous processes, while keeping in mind the larger picture. To learn more about the importance of resource allocation please click here.

5. Team Management: This segment involves more than just making sure everyone on the team is happy or motivated. It requires the leader to take responsibility to develop structured processes to handle recruitment, evaluations, firing and conflict management. As a leader we have to be constantly in touch with our team and the challenges they face, to ensure we do whatever it takes to help them reach their potential. To learn more about the importance of team management please click here.

Undoubtedly the startup leader is in for a lot of surprises. The aim of this series was to equip new startup leaders with some broad guidelines of areas they should be focusing on. I strongly believe that when enough hard work is put into the development of the segments outlined above, they will definitely have a positive impact on the team and the business as a whole. It is important that you enjoy your journey both as an entrepreneur and a leader. I wish you the best of luck in your future entrepreneurial ventures.

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Managing the Team

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We hear it all the time “People are our most important strategic asset”, it is like a mantra of the business world today, repeated by CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies and new startups alike. However, if  you get down to gauge what leaders and managers are actually doing, to develop and nurture these assets, the standard response includes; our focus is on training and development, creating a conducive work environment or, helping the team achieve a work/life balance. After which there is usually a change of subject, and the topic switches to more ‘exciting’ matters, such as, their latest technology innovation. This has been my personal experience with many leaders and managers. I feel they are missing critical components of what it takes to develop and grow a team. 

I believe the reason too much attention is not spent on the function of ‘HR’, is due to the fact that it’s results are intangible in the short term. What is the ROI of $X on training & development in a year? How does a more rigorous performance management system impact productivity? These are difficult questions to answer. However, trends are now becoming clearly apparent that senior management across the world are beginning to understand the importance of management of this asset. In the coming years, I expect to see radical transformations in this field. So, how does all of this impact a leader of a startup organization? 

As a startup leader, one has to play multiple roles. One of the key roles is to focus on being responsible for the management of your team to the best of your abilities. Until you can afford a good HR resource, this is a responsibility that falls in your scope of work. A couple of key areas where a startup leader should spend time during the early stages of the organization are:

1. Hiring: This component encompasses adding new people to the team, evaluating prospective partners and even vendor selection. In the beginning, adding an additional resource to say a team of 4, is a substantial percentage increase in head count. This resource will have a deep impact on the rest of the team and requires careful selection. As a leader, you are responsible for coming up with basic job descriptions, required competencies and the preferred type of personality needed for the role. Learn to trust your gut instincts as they are usually right. Develop a structured process for the hiring and evaluation stage to streamline future requirements when the team is growing at a faster pace.

2. Evaluation: When we think performance reviews, many imagine complicated forms which take forever to complete, and have no real impact on the individual. This is very true of a lot of performance review processes found in many organizations. I like to keep things simple, a couple of questions relating to past performance, areas where development is required, issues brought up by other team members is all that is needed. I think it is important to have metrics in place which can tell your team members how they are doing and where they need to develop. Develop a short evaluation form and conduct them candidly every quarter if possible.

3. Firing: This is a tough one. I am not comfortable with the firing process yet, it is however an important aspect of being a leader. When a team member, whether a partner or an employee, in spite of repeated reminders and warnings regarding performance or behavior, does not change, a difficult decision needs to be made. This process becomes easier if you have a culture of candor present in your team. One needs to communicate the basis of the decision clearly and be firm. One bad team member is all it takes to drastically reduce productivity and team spirit. The sooner these situations are handled the better.

As a leader it is your responsibility to be in touch with your team constantly. This helps to understand where they need assistance, what their concerns are, as well as be a source of inspiration and guidance. If  all we do is keep paying lip service to ‘developing our most strategic asset’, the team will not be able to reach its potential and we would not have fulfilled our duties as a leader. 

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Optimizing Resource Allocation

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Resource allocation is an area I believe many startups pay inadequate attention to. It does not matter if you are bootstrapping or have just received a massive cash injection, planning resource allocation is a critical function. A startup without proper allocation of resources, ends up in difficult situations, which may result in layoffs, discontinuing product/services, drop in quality, overburdening of some assets and may even require shutting the business down as a whole. I have personally witnessed repercussions of misallocation of resources, this has made me realize even more, the vital importance of this function. 

During your startup journey, you will need to make several key decisions regarding resource allocation. Some key ones are hiring, purchasing of equipment,  investment in new products/services, upgrading of office premises, expansion, marketing and staff development. Apart from this, there will be a constant flow of new proposals and investment opportunities, these will make the allocation process even more challenging. As a leader, it will be your responsibility to manage the expectations of the business, stakeholders and your team, to reach an allocation mix, aimed at satisfying each one of them. In my experience, aiming for a perfect equilibrium is a great challenge, difficult sacrifices will need to be made and not everyone will be completely satisfied.

I like to keep things as simple as possible, here are a few basic steps I take when thinking about resource allocation:

1. Planning: If you are at an early stage in your business, use the business plan to give you a holistic picture of goals, and a time frame for achieving them. Use that as your guide plan for resource allocation to various segments. If you are already well into your business, take a look at the historic performances of your products/services, evaluate your cash flow positions for the coming year and allocate resources appropriately. It is important to be in a position to see the bigger picture before any resource allocation is done. 

2. Analysis: During the planning stage, there will undoubtedly be several options for resource allocation. It is important that all the opportunities are carefully evaluated. Conduct feasibility studies and market research before making any substantial investment. It is important to look at future requirements the investment will have as well. Overlooking future implications of current investments, can result in massive cash flow problems which can literally bring business to a halt. Where necessary, use a ranking matrix to evaluate your decisions.

3. Consensus: It is important to get feedback and have open discussions during the resource allocation exercise. Wherever possible, use experts in their respective areas to help guide and educate the rest of the team. The last thing you want to do as a leader is to appear to make key decisions such as resource allocation autonomously. As a leader, it is your responsibility to present all available options and give your point of view for the optimal course. 

The objective of this post is to emphasize the importance of proper resource allocation. The steps outlined should help in developing a basic framework to help you during this process. I intend to do a more detailed post regarding various resource allocation strategies soon for specific types of businesses. 

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How Participative is Your Team?

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I was introduced to the importance of candor in the work place in Jack Welch’s book Winning. Candor is essentially, the ability to express one’s thoughts, opinions and concerns free from discrimination or dishonesty. However, it has been noted by several psychologists, that the reason most of us do not integrate more candor into our daily lives, is because it goes against societal norms. It is essentially because we are constantly protecting our self interest, that we do not share our opinions candidly in sensitive matters, and do our best to ‘stay out of trouble’. We may survive without brutal candor in our normal daily lives, however, the absence of an environment of candor in a startup or business entity, will lead to missing out on many lost opportunities. 

It is the leader’s responsibility to integrate candor into the team. I believe that leading by example is the best way to fast track the integration of candor into a team. I remember the first couple of performance reviews I had with members of a team I had recently begun working with. Initially, when I asked questions relating to productivity levels of other team members or their last quarter’s performance, there was  a palpable  sense of discomfort. When I raised concerns regarding the performance of the business and asked the team to share their concerns, I was initially met with much silence. Eventually however, these psychological barriers will break down with adequate effort put into the process. As a leader, it is vital to help others feel comfortable in expressing their concerns and desist from becoming defensive or abrasive if they do not like what they hear. 

A couple of ways to introduce the concept of candor into your team is by:

1. Rewarding: During discussions and meetings, individuals who bring up viewpoints other’s have ben tip toeing around, should be rewarded through a pre-formulated mechanism. I incorporated this into a team I was working with, we kept a tally of who was adding the most constructive thoughts, ideas and suggestions. Keeping score, is in my experience, a great way to get people to participate.

2. Feedback: Institute monthly or quarterly feedback session among employees and yourself. If possible use a tool such as a 360 degree questionnaire to help get the process started. Everyone should provide their assessor and participant with a score on how helpful the session was. This helps get people talking and brings issues which may be bothering them, to the surface.

A word of caution,  integration of candor into your team environment may be met with initial skepticism. However, if the aim is to remain committed to making this a part of your team’s culture, it will most certainly give rise to more productive meetings, better ideas, faster approvals and eventually, lead to higher overall  productivity. 

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It is all about Your Attitude

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Startups usually comprise of small, tight knit teams. As the leader of this group, your energy level and mood is a compass for the rest of team. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that he/she does whatever is required to keep the team motivational level and outlook positive. I have found this to be very tricky sometimes. There are times when , a lack of sleep, or not feeling too well, leads to not having the required positive attitude at work. This is clearly visible to the rest of the team and has a viral affect on the rest of the team members and productivity does suffer. By the same token, if there is a member of the team who always seems to have a negative outlook, the leader has to combat these views with positive ones to bring a level of overall equilibrium. 

There will always be times when the economy is bad, the competition released a superior product, the team lost a critical member, or a host of other situations which bring the team morale down. I have experienced several of these situations and have learnt that my response to the situation will go a long way in deciding its eventual outcome. If I choose to give up, get depressed or blame others because of a particular situation, it has a domino effect on both the business, as well as the team. As a leader, we have to be aware of changing dynamics both within the team, and externally, and adapt to them seamlessly.

Listed below are a couple of ways to keep your attitude and energy in constant check:

1. At the end of every week/month ask for feedback from your team regarding your attitude during the time period, on a scale of 1 – 10. If you get a score of 6, ask about specific areas which you can work on to bring it to say 8 next week. This may seem forced and uncomfortable at first. However if there is a culture of candor present at your startup, this will be a breeze.

2. Document all the incidents you feel caused your attitude or energy levels to drop drastically. Were the changes directed to any one person? What caused them? What were the repercussions? Once we have some patterns regarding when and what is causing attitude and energy levels to drop, we can take specific steps to stop them from doing so in the future.

A leader’s attitude is usually the defining difference between a good team and a great team. With the right attitude, we assist the team break down mental barriers which may be holding them back, take away the fear of making mistakes and generally help them push themselves further. Pay closer attention to attitude, it should result in a team having higher productivity,and being more motivated and driven to reach their goals.

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