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Thank you to the 1,400 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 questions!
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helps you in your leadership.



Jonno White

7 Questions with Mike Wittenstein
7 Questions with Mike Wittenstein

Name: Mike Wittenstein

Current title: Founder + Managing Partner

Current organisation: Storyminers

Mike Wittenstein is the founder and managing partner at Storyminers, an award-winning international speaker, consultant, and designer. He is an often-quoted thought leader, and ex IBM eVisionary. Mike has founded or led five professional service firms, worked in 100 cities in 24 countries, and helped his clients earn over US$2 billion in added value. As a leading expert in the fields of customer experience, strategy, and story, Mike works with companies to shape new ideas into first revenues. He works in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. Hiking, woodworking, and just being with family and friends is how he spends his leisure time.

7 Questions with Mike Wittenstein

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader of a small or medium enterprise?

Since I work primarily in professional services, the hardest thing is knowing what my future clients need. If I don't know that, it's hard to position our services and reason for purchase properly.
Since I don't know who they are (yet), it's always a mystery to understand what they'll respond to. Of course, I can use previous clients as a proxy. However, most of my work is future-state-oriented, so I've learned from experience that what people thought yesterday isn't necessarily what they think today...

2. How did you become a leader of an SME? Can you please briefly tell the story?

Leading an SME was never my goal. I didn't even understand it was an option. Only by looking back over my shoulder and repackaging my past can I say that I am an SME leader :-)
They say the leaders are made, not born. I believe that's true. When you're called upon to lead, you simply step into new shoes and do it.
Of course, in the beginning, you may be filled with doubt and spend too much time thinking about every issue because you lack the experience. Don't worry, you're actually getting the experience you need to be an SME leader in the future. Get rid of the idea that you have to be perfect the first time out, and your work life will be so much more comfortable. (Your personal life too!)

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

Nobody is perfect, especially me. A good day for me usually starts the evening before when I reprioritize my biggest projects and block out time to do them on my calendar. Sometimes, this gets in the way of my automated calendaring solution (calendly), which lets prospects and clients schedule time at their convenience.
When I book my time, I try to spend 70% of it on top-priority projects, 20% on second-level projects, and 10% on everything else. Over the years, I've learned that spending time on the least important things prevents them from growing into monsters which then get classified as the most important things :-)
Since I have a fast and active mind, I typically don't schedule work sessions for longer than 50-70 minutes. I put small chunks of time in to just do different things. They can be emails, doing a podcast, or making some telephone calls. Anything that breaks up the rhythm is good for me. What is not good for me or unexpected breaks or letting my attention drift to non-priority items.
At the end of the day, I use toggl to track my paid client time and my important project time. I also take a minute to reflect on what I did that makes me feel good and on areas or decisions where I could improve. Of course, not every day goes according to this plan ;-)

4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

It's simple. No matter how hard you try, or how much you spend, your brand can't be any better than what your customers experience. The idea behind this is that each and every day and each and every hour and with each and every contact and decision, your brand is performing. How it performs in front of a client only one time is your brand. You can't be good 80% of the time and expect people to think that your brand stands for 100%.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

This is easy. The book is called Adaptive Enterprise by Stephen Haeckel. It's all about how to apply systems- and design-thinking to business. It's helped me earn over $2 billion for clients and it's helped make my company, Storyminers, much more nimble. It's probably even saved our neck a couple of times.
Working with the concepts in Haeckel's book, I tend to think less about processes and departments and more about customers and the outcomes they desire. These concepts also force me to think about how the business needs to change so it can meet customers' needs. Many businesses still emphasize operational efficiency over customer experience. In quickly changing times, that doesn't make your business easier to work with.

6. How do you build leadership capacity in an SME?

The way we build leadership capacity at Storyminers is the same way we build skills in other areas. As we negotiated each new project, I asked the client "What else would you like to learn?" In addition to them giving us some money and us giving them some service or the desired outcome, we negotiate for the betterment of both our teams. The idea is to stage the work so that there is a conscious and purposeful transfer of knowledge in carefully selected areas. It doesn't matter who learns more, just that learning happens.
Some of our team have enjoyed picking up new skills and perspectives which they carry forward in their work. Our clients have learned several techniques and ideas that they can replicate on their own as well.
We call this capability strategic learning, but that doesn't matter. What matters is helping people grow, making them smarter, And giving them the opportunity to apply what they've learned with others. This passing on of knowledge is probably the number one leadership skill. Often, I have a conversation with our younger team members about how to comfortably coach an older person. Taking the time to show an interest in someone and giving them the ability to raise an issue, offer an idea, or even make a critique, speeds client outcomes, improves teamwork, and builds individual confidence.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader of an SME so far?

In 2018, I can tell things were changing very quickly. Clients seem to be losing interest in our mainline story. They stopped returning phone calls and emails. I knew something was up. So, I dug in and did about 100 interviews over the next year. It gave me some insights and I quickly applied them to a new website. It was our third website in 18 years. Internally, we called it story -3.0.
In 2020, the same thing happened. What connected with clients in the past wasn't working, so we had to change. This time, we did it much faster. We knew how to dial into future clients' new needs and that's what we did. We've got new messaging and services coming out in Q1 of 2021 and I can't wait to share it with the world.
So, the lesson for aspiring SMEs is to not be afraid to reinvent, even your own business!

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