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At least 25 per cent of self-made billionaires were fired from established companies early in their careers, according to a recent study. Many others resigned from companies, often frustrated because the firm moved too slowly, repelled their ideas, or bored them.

That's an interesting nugget from an unusual look at a random sample of self-made billionaires from the 2012 Forbes list by two PwC consultants, John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen, which they report on in Strategy + business.

They expected to find the group would be primarily tech entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, who were adept at a young age at reading trends in fast-moving tech and media sectors. But instead they found more of the billionaires were serial entrepreneurs who didn't become wealthy until they started their second, third, or fourth business in an established market, often when they were in their 30s or 40s. They then grew it, not super-fast but progressively, over time, even decades, to make their lucre.

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The study led them to divide professionals into two types: producers and performers. Producers, like these billionaires, look beyond an existing business or market to envision something new, serving unmet needs or taking advantage of disruptive forces. Performers keep things humming. They can be supremely talented, the consultants note, as they manage and improve their organization within established guidelines.

The fact that so many billionaires walked out of previous employment frustrated reflects what the consultants say is an unfortunate reality: "Companies are set up to perform. They are not set up to produce. If firms were more capable at producing, they would not have to worry about combatting disruption from outside. They would already be skilled at redesigning, disrupting, and innovating from within."

These producers displayed five mindsets that led them to generate uncommonly effective ideas and approaches to leadership:

  • Empathetic imagination: In almost all the billionaires’ stories is a blockbuster idea that arose because of their awareness, empathy, imagination and knowledge. The producer was for many years a performer in the field and became aware of an underexploited customer need, which he or she had deep empathy about, and converted for commercial success. “Paradoxically, the producer may have had to spend years as a performer, working in the market, to get that knowledge. Then he or she will need to use imagination to forget everything that was learned as a performer, to see the opportunity in a fresh way,” Mr. Sviokla and Mr. Cohen write.
  • Patient urgency: The creation does not occur overnight. It can take years or decades to develop. “Skilled producers learn to be patient. They know how to wait for the right idea at the right time. But once they hit on a compelling idea, they have a bias toward action that compels them to take urgent steps. In the producer’s mind, timing is untethered from the quarter-driven mindset of the typical American corporation,” they note.
  • Inventive execution: They rethink and redesign long-accepted business models, coming up with new ways of delivering offerings and meeting needs. They might tackle the customer experience, strategy and tactics, the terms of the sale and the deal, or ownership and distribution, to take some key items.
  • Redefining risk: They focus on relative, not absolute, risk. “Most people measure risk in absolute terms: Will this business succeed or fail? Producers view risk in relative terms: Which option presents the greatest opportunity? If the opportunity is right in a risky venture, they’ll look for ways to mitigate risk … but they won’t turn down the venture. It’s a greater risk to lose the opportunity,” the consultants explain.
  • Team with performers: Yes, they are producers, but more than half the billionaires in the sample started their businesses as part of a producer-performer team. Perhaps the best-known duo is Steve Jobs, the producer, and Steve Wozniak, the performer who handled much of the technical side building the Mac computer. “The idea of the solo genius is so pervasive in the way people talk about and think about extraordinary success that it obscures the real story of how good ideas become great businesses. Self-made billionaires are not alone. Producers have the ability to see beyond the parameters of what exists today to imagine new opportunities. Performers, in turn, have the ability to optimize and achieve within known parameters. Value creation requires both,” they stress.

The findings help us to understand the dynamics of success for many self-made billionaires and more importantly shed light on how we can succeed.

2. Rethinking your to-do list

Novelist Michael Grothaus used to feel frustrated at the end of the day because he never completed his to-do list. His solution was to divide his list into three categories: digital quickies, work and real world.

Digital quickies are short tasks he can complete on a laptop or smartphone. And despite many productivity gurus telling us we must tackle the big things first, he finds it better to get rid of these quickies at the start of the day.

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"I found many of the tasks I had scratched down on my daily to-dos were really digital quickies. They could be taken care of in a few minutes each, yet seemed like much more immersive tasks because they were not organized together and completed all at once," he writes in Fast Company.

Next, with almost a third of his to-dos scratched off and a feeling of accomplishment, come the critical tasks of the day, in the work category. He finds it helps to have rough time estimates for each of these big-ticket items.

His third category covers the stuff of life, the non-digital work activities of the "real world." It's errands and other similar activities, usually with a self-imposed deadline, and they can be completed after official work hours.

"Ever since I started using this new format, I've completed every task on my daily lists. It's a great feeling of accomplishment when you scratch the last item off and toss that yellow Post-it in the trash," he says.

Also in to-do news: Microsoft, which bought the highly-touted Wunderlist to-do app, has now come out with its own ultimate replacement for it, called To-Do, available for desktops and mobiles. You can create to-do lists, set up reminders and track projects, with simple but vivid graphics. Perhaps the most helpful addition is My Day, a list of the activities on your to-do list you will tackle this day.

3. Eight signs you are a bad boss

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Could you be a bad boss? Check this list of eight attributes provided by consultant Alison Green to make sure you aren't:

  • You hesitate to go on vacation because you worry that things will fall apart while you’re gone.
  • You take it personally when people quit.
  • Sometimes you yell at your staff.
  • You often end up taking work over from your staff so that it gets done correctly.
  • You avoid giving critical feedback because you don’t want to make anyone feel bad.
  • On the other hand, the last time you gave someone positive feedback was weeks ago.
  • You boast about working around the clock and rarely taking a sick day.
  • You think people should be grateful to have a job.

4. Quick hits

  • A face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an e-mail, Mahdi Roghanizad of Western University and Vanessa Bohns of Cornell University found in a research study.
  • A behavioural challenge for successful people can be the desire to add their two cents to every conversation, says executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. He says it’s extremely difficult for them to listen to other people tell them something that they already know without communicating somehow that they already knew it and they know a better way.
  • Since we feel the pain of loss more acutely than the pleasure of gain, pitch your innovative ideas by stressing the opportunities that could be lost, says Loran Nordgren, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
  • At Palo Alto’s Institute for The Future, people were advised to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.”
  • Ditch the sandwich technique of placing negative feedback between two slices of positive comments. Consultant David Lee says it usually backfires as employees know the formula, making the sandwich hard to swallow.
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