Leading Leaders: 5 Insights from 5 Years with EO (that can help you, too)

By Dr. Carrie Santos, CEO of Entrepreneurs’ Organization

2017 feels like a very long time ago. The world has changed significantly. A global pandemic. A brutal war. A stressful squeeze on global supply chains. A surge in extreme weather disasters. The rise of ‘fake news’. It is a time that has tested many of us.

Yet, as I mark five years leading the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) as its CEO, it’s a good time to reflect on five key insights gained from such a remarkable community of business founders. These are lessons I have learned, thanks to all of you. 

EO’s members are builders, founders, owners and leaders in their own right. Each possesses the unique traits of entrepreneurship. When I took over as CEO, I quickly realized the challenges ahead: how to best serve, unite and lead other leaders. Which of my experiences could have the greatest impact on an already successful group of people? How can I help them grow as individuals, and help us grow as a community?

I have learned so much from EO in these last five years. Let me share five of my takeaways, gained by learning together with such extraordinary people. Some might be helpful for you, too.

1. Actively listen to find the gold

Learning is a full-time job: 24/7, 365 days a year. We must always be primed to learn, because we never know where or when someone might share something we didn’t know we needed to hear.

At EO, we are lucky to have such a wide range of experience and expertise across our membership that the moments of real insight are everywhere. We are offered in conversation with each other what I describe as little golden nuggets of wisdom. But we need to be present and listen, or we will miss them. In the moment, on the job, experiential learning can happen, so long as we are always open to insight. It can be how to handle a customer complaint, how to stay calm when your teenager is exasperating, or how to deal with a parent’s dementia. When you believe you can learn from each person’s wisdom, you will find it.

2. Look for the global context in local business conversations (and vice versa)

With members in more than 70 countries, EO is truly global, but that does not mean that our members around the world share the same culture, views or experiences. Local context is so important, and is vital for shaping a person’s worldview. We start to see the commonalities that connect us. Those shared concerns and dreams.

I have been privileged to travel extensively over the last five years and I have gained new perspectives on issues that I thought I well understood. Different countries have different mixes of industries, and within them, different challenges, but also unique successes. Entrepreneurs everywhere are wired similarly, even as they work in varying environments. Again and again, I get to watch members from different continents connect as they realize they appreciate the same business guru, fitness coach or author.

3. Know and practice our failure narrative

This should be second nature to a community of big-thinking and bold-acting founders who are well-versed in picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and starting again when things did not work out the first, second, or even third time: know your failure narrative.  It was new to me after arriving at EO to learn that I did not have to keep on my armor of perfection and infallibility, and there was much more to learn by being vulnerable about my weaknesses and disappointments.

Without being honest with ourselves about why our strategies went awry, we cannot improve. The most successful entrepreneurs do not get wrapped up in the blame game, and instead say, “hey, what can we learn from this?”

The same holds true in the stories we tell each other. We know when listening to someone who insists their life is one success after another, we tune out because they are not being honest with us or honest with themselves. But when we look inside to those tough lessons that shaped us, and we share our full narrative, others can also see themselves. That support we get when we show ourselves not at our best—and realize we are accepted even more—makes it possible to transform and to move forward. Stepping back and seeing a mishap as a learning opportunity is like entrepreneurial magic.

4. Thank people who challenge us

This is so simple once you realize it. If we do not thank people for challenging our thinking, for stress-testing our ideas, or for pushing back on our instructions, then they will never do it again.

Diversity of thought is so key to progress, and we must do everything in our power to encourage that. It starts with thanking those who stand up to us. Give yourself a moment if you need to, put down your defenses. Say thank you. And be sure you mean it.

5. Be ready to let go – even when trying to build a consensus

Even the smartest person in the room’s idea will be improved by a fresh point of view. I know plenty of people who pay lip service to generating consensus, but then dismiss new ideas because they are already set on what they want. Instead of listening for what is good in someone else’s idea, they are running through in their head how to win more people to their side and push harder. 

If we took the energy we spend on defending our approaches and focused instead on putting the elements of different ideas together, we would get a much better outcome. 

Creativity should not be an individual sport we try to win for having the best idea. It takes much deeper creativity to combine what is best from multiple points of view and design a shared outcome. Learning this is a team sport that is one of the most challenging leadership skills to master. Partnerships must be equal and genuine. If we are only focused on what we want when we enter a dialogue, then we have missed an opportunity to build a real relationship with our peers. The bonding and buy-in we get when everyone knows the outcome is truly a collective effort is unparalleled. 

Truly, my most rewarding and memorable experiences at EO these past five years were spent in collective problem-solving. You start the day with your preferred solutions and approaches, and by the end of the day, the group’s accomplishments far surpass anything you might have imagined on your own. Imagine how constructive it would be if we all practiced this not just in our businesses, but in our countries, communities and families! Imagine how we could unlock our full potential to move the world forward.

Who knows what challenges and learnings the next five years ahead may hold? With these takeaways from my first five years at EO, and skills in listening, honesty and collaboration, it’s clear that the future is limited only by our imagination. Whatever may come, I feel a deep sense of gratitude and respect for the thousands of amazing entrepreneurs and business leaders across EO and our partner organizations who have helped shape and strengthen me and our team along the way. Leading EO is an honor and an education.

Happy Global Entrepreneurship Week!

For more insights and inspiration from today’s leading entrepreneurs, check out EO on Inc. and more articles from the EO blog

Categories: Entrepreneurial Journey LEADERSHIP Lessons Learned WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS


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