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courage402x302

“One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.”

                                                                                                  Maximes 1665

All of us like to think that we are courageous.  We have the mental strength to stand up in the face of adversity; we will persevere.  Really?  What is the measure that makes someone courageous?

Recently, I was talking to a second generation business owner who was telling me about the challenges he was facing and how it took “courage” to face them.  As we discussed the issues, it became apparent that the possible negative consequences facing the business were, on a scale of one to ten, maybe a four.  As I dug deeper into the issues and his background, I realized that he had never really faced danger.  Not in his personal life or in the business.  In his mind, his reality, he was a very courageous person.

A few weeks later, I was meeting with a business owner that was facing an incredibly difficult business situation.  The company has been in business for over twenty-five years and had developed a firm standing in their industry.  Then about five years ago things began to unravel.  Technology innovations, competition, and material costs challenges all seem to hit at once.  The owner aggressively moved to address these challenges while trying to maintain his market presence.  Hard decisions at first, then more difficult decisions and finally scary decisions.  He told me, “I am fighting for my life here.”

Granted, both individuals had the knowledge and background, i.e., confidence, to tackle the issues, but only one faced real danger.  As I look back over my business career, the individuals that I remember as being “courageous” were the ones that were facing “real danger.”  So what is the principal component of courage?  –  Danger; something that can hurt you, or your business.  The greater the danger, the greater the courage required.  And, the more courage you build up over the years, the better you become at making decisions.

Next month I will talk about the ultimate courage.

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The Porch

It is funny how we can look back on life and remember things that had a significant influence on where we are today. When you ask people about things that ‘shaped’ them during their developmental years you almost always get the name of a family member, teacher, coach, or perhaps a professor. Rightfully so, no one could argue that role models, or people we admire and respect, can have a significant influence on our development.

Interestingly when I go down this memory lane I eventually come back to what happened to me when I was around 12 or 13 years old. What makes this interesting is that it is out of the ordinary and could have easily passed by me without me ever noticing. My event? The porch!

During the spring and summer months as a young boy, I would walk the surrounding neighborhoods looking for houses that needed their grass cut; with my push mower! I would carefully watch yards to see when it would be an opportune time to ask the owner if they would like their yard cut. Actually, it was a lot of walking with little grass cutting; but I did earn some money and became very comfortable in approaching adults.

About a block from my house lived a friend whose father was having a difficult time finding work. Day after day I would see Mr. W sitting in his rocker on his porch. I would wave as I walked by and he would occasionally say something like, “Find any yards lately?” I would also see Mr. W in church on Sundays with his large family thinking how he must have been praying for some luck in his life.

Spring turned to summer, summer to fall and fall to winter; when I switched from cutting grass to shoveling walks. Seasons changed but the porch remained. One day as I walked by Mr. W’s house on a cold snowy day, I saw the empty rocker sitting on the porch; obviously too cold for Mr. W to be sitting outside. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.

The Discovery

I really don’t know why this hit me; all I know is that it had a significant impact on me.  During all of the months that I had observed this unfortunate situation, I didn’t connect the significance of what I was observing. I don’t really know if my perception of Mr. W’s situation was accurate, but my perception was reality to me. The revelation was simple: you have to get off of the porch. What a simple concept! No one is going to come into my yard, walk up on my porch and offer me grass cutting and snow removal jobs. I have to take responsibility for accomplishing what is important to me, and it will not happen by just sitting on the porch.

Opportunities/solutions do not come to you sitting in a rocker on a porch; you have to wander the streets in search of your desired outcome. Over the past thirty plus years I have been amazed at the number of business owners that I have met that have been sitting on the porch expressing concern about some ‘big’ issue that they weren’t actively addressing – for many different reasons. These were significant issues that could have an impact on the future success of their business. Think about the businesses in the recent recession that took on a ‘bunker mentality’ and were trying to hold out until things got better; waiting on the porch. I wonder if their competition was sitting on their porch.

Porch sitting is about making the choice not to do something when action is required, usually supported by an ill-conceived rationalization of a situation. Consider the following:

  • A sixty year-old family business owner saying, “I really don’t need to do succession planning now, I have plenty of time.”
  • “I know we really should have a strategic plan in place for the future of our business, but I just don’t have the time to do it, plus I don’t know where to begin.”
  • “Eighty percent of our business comes from one large company. One of these days, I’m going to have to find other customers so all of my eggs aren’t in one basket.”
  • “I could really use some help in developing better management skills to run my company, but I’m embarrassed to seek the help. I don’t want people to see me as weak.”

Unfortunately, porch sitters do not understand, or simply dismiss, the sense of urgency required for ‘Find any yards lately?’

Opportunities, or solutions, do not conjure up out of doing nothing; they appear as a result of ‘knocking’ on doors. It doesn’t matter if you are trying to grow your business, develop a strategic plan, establish a succession plan or put an outside board in place; you have to start taking some type of action to make these happen. Remember, in almost all situations where action is required but not taken, TIME will eventually make the decision for you. Unfortunately, it won’t be the caliber of action you would have taken earlier, or it wouldn’t even be your desired result. Oh, by the way, the sixty year-old business owner mentioned above just had a major heart attack without a succession plan in place. Where does that leave the family business?

Think about the strategic issues that need action in your business. What are you sitting on the porch waiting for?

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Fool's Gold

During the gold rush of the 1800’s many prospectors, in their relentless hunt for gold, discovered a mineral know as pyrite (fool’s gold), which looked like gold. The mistake, especially for naive prospectors, was only discovered after mining and transporting all of the mineral they could carry to a local surveyor. In simple terms, they were obsessed in finding their fortune. So anything that looked like what they were looking for quickly, to them, became a reality. The mineral even became a method for tricking unsuspecting prospectors into buying a gold mine that had been “salted” with fool’s gold to give the appearance of a gold mine.

In the business world today, we prospectors, in many cases, are still mining fool’s gold. We go after appearance versus substance. Why, because we see what we want to see. Somewhere along the way when I was just starting out in business I remember an old sage saying ‘nothing is as it appears to be.’ I didn’t understand it at the time, but the concept has never left me. Today, all you have to do is search the internet for something and start going through your hits. Wow, almost every hit promising to meet your need. Slick images, testimonials, reviews, offerings, promotions, guarantees, etc., etc., etc. All you have to do now is pack it up and take it to the surveyor. Unfortunately, in a noticeable number of cases, you discover you have mined fool’s gold.

In many of my blogs I talk about decision-making and how important it is to have a process. When you are obsessed in doing something, regardless if it is in response to an opportunity or a threat, you have to be aware that mines salted with fool’s gold are all around you. Venturing into one of these will consume valuable resources (time, people, and money) and, at the very least, delay you in accomplishing your objective.

Of the three components in effective decision-making, knowledge, especially in today’s world of complex imaging, becomes critical. The more knowledge you can develop before you begin your mining, the better chance you will have in discovering gold. The more you get in the habit of developing knowledge as a part of how you make decisions the more efficient you will become in managing your resources for making decisions. Remember, from your perspective, substance is based on knowledge. Appearance is not.

I’m not saying that everyone can make the ultimate decision if they just build more knowledge. I’m saying that if you can develop a decision-making process that always incorporates a knowledge component; you will make fewer trips to the surveyor with fool’s gold. – It boils down to my favorite quote; “tell me the process you used to make the decision.” Appearance versus substance.

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Future, Past & Present crossword

When you talk to a business owner about business plans, strategies or strategic planning you very quickly get into a discussion about expected changes in their business environment.  What is going to happen in the next 3-5 years?  How can I position my company to take advantage of those changes?  Where are my markets going?

It is good to see business owners focusing on the future.  No one wants to get left behind.  Adapt or die.  Game on!  In the end, however, it is about the allocation of resources; i.e., making decisions about time, people and money.  Placing bets on the future, focusing on the changes expected to take place in the marketplace.

What is really interesting is that very seldom does the business owner identify what is not expected to change in the next 3-5 years, which is a critical component of strategic thinking.  A business owner must identify and discuss these issues because they are also part of the resource allocation decision.  This is the component of your strategic equation that is constant in your projections.  You can bet on it; it is going to happen.

You will find that when you bring what is ‘not changing’ into the discussion of future plans or strategies, the strategies not only become more robust they are more focused, which means resource allocations are more efficient.

What is not expected to change in your future?

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Words2

Several months ago I had an experience with a long-term business relationship that got me thinking about how easy it is for businesses to lose relationships over a few simple words.  So for the next month or so I began to catalogue responses given to me, as a customer, when inquiring about or questioning a product or service.  For the most part I was pleased in what I was observing.  On the other hand, I occasionally experienced being given, what I call, “words without substance”.  While the words may have been well-intended, they were meaningless to me.  The following are a few that really got me thinking.

  1. “We received your phone message the other day.  I gave Dave the information and he will get back to you today.”  Two days later.  “He has your message and I am sure he will call you today.”  I never got a response.  My take-away: I have dealt with this business for five years.  I had their attention when business was slow and they needed work.  Now that they are growing again, I’ve lost my importance.  They have lost my business.
  2. “I didn’t pull up the information you provided on our computer system; so can you give it to me again?”  My take-away:  Why do I have to do something twice to get your business?
  3. “You product’s original shipping material (box, product information, warranty, etc.) was probably destroyed in our warehouse so we put you product in one of our plain boxes.”  My take-away:  Zappos has a great return policy; unfortunately you may get what was returned in the condition it was returned and you still pay full price.  I returned the product and will not purchase from them in the future.
  4. “The service department made a mistake and put the wrong product on the invoice.  Don’t worry, they did provide the correct product.”  Did you check?  “No, it is ok.”  My take-away:  I checked and it was the wrong product.  Now it is the wrong company for me.

Words given in response to a customer’s question cannot be just words without substance.  You may think that your response is adequate for a customer, and perhaps it works is most cases.  You may even think that the customer will understand your situation (how things are).  This is a big gamble, because I really don’t need to understand your situation.  As a customer, you need to understand mine and respond accordingly.

I didn’t realize how often I experienced just “words.”  Now I find myself listening more closely to what I’m being told.  Do you know how your company is responding to your customers?  Have you listened in?

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Main Street

By many measures our economy is on the mend; to what degree depends, unfortunately, on the perspectives of political pundits championing a party, or the cadre of news anchors fighting for ratings. In most cases you are led to believe that the state of our economy, good or bad, is the result of the ‘helping hand’ of government. Somewhere in all of this muck there is a ‘real story’ that goes untold.

I assure you that while we may be in a period of measured growth, or even moderate growth, and more positive consumer confidence, the root cause is not the ‘helping hand.” Reams of economic statistics or elaborate algorithms describing some economic state miss the mark. A politician standing behind a podium in an empty chamber engaged in verbal combat with himself misses the mark. The ‘helping hand’ can only be a hindrance or a catalyst for economic prosperity, it cannot create it!

The following photograph was taken on December 30, 1917 at Pittsburgh Plate Glass on Main Street in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. My grandfather and uncle are in the photo.

Pittsburgh Plate Glass 1917_edited-4

I’ve always liked this photograph because it depicts the foundation of our economy; a business whose survival depends on its capability to create economic value. No ‘helping hand’ back then.

Well guess what? The basic model hasn’t changed; businesses are still being formed and run to create economic value. Their success or failure is determined by their efforts, regardless of the environment; including the ‘helping hand.’ I am sure that if you could ask those in the 1917 photo if their economic environment was tough, they would, without question, say yes. Just like we do today. The difference is the structure and complexity of that environment.

I live near a small community that has a Main Street lined with a variety of small shops and eateries. Outside the downtown area are small industrial companies; manufactures, distributors, service providers, etc. Almost all of them are small privately-held companies and family businesses. This is a microcosm of the substance of our economy; the ‘real story’ that goes untold.

When you talk to these business owners, somewhere in the conversation the ‘helping hand’ topic always comes up. But most of all, they talk about things like;

  • Plans on growing their business.
  • Developing new products or markets.
  • Fighting competition.
  • Family issues.
  • Finding qualified workers.
  • Developing better management competencies.
  • Starting another business.
  • Funding.

Main Street is the driving force of our economy; not the ‘helping hand’ of government. It won’t be a headline on national television or on the front page of newspapers; but it is without a doubt the lifeline of our economic future. It is the untold story.

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Question

Years ago, I found myself in a unique position that, for me, redefined the ‘approach-avoidance’ phenomenon. I had a tremendous drive to move forward on something that I knew was critically important and at the same time, caution lights were going off all around me. This was a new area for me.

My boss, a Vice President, was struggling with an objective he was trying to implement to the point that it was becoming challenging for him to focus on other matters. From my perspective I saw things that I would be doing. Granted, I realized that I did not have the same information he did. But to me, the way forward was clear. So I decided to have a meeting with my boss so I could set the stage for asking him ‘the question.’ – How can I help you?

All of us at some point in our career find ourselves in this same position. Based on my experience and observation most of us choose yielding to the caution lights. But why? What is the distinction between those that forge ahead and those that choose not to?

How do you get to the point where you are willing to take the chance?

  • Frist, prove yourself in your current responsibilities, show that you are on top of your game. This gives you the confidence to test your perimeter.
  • Observe, observe, observe. Try to understand the challenges your superiors are facing and how they are connected to your skill-set and experience.
  • Formulate ways you might help them. This is not just an idea or an opinion, but a well thought-out perspective using your competencies and capabilities. Work up an outline, make notes, etc. Develop a strategy on how you would move forward. All of this becomes critically important when discussing the challenges with your boss. – Listen carefully, interject slowly.
  • Be prepared for rejection. However, you can’t lose if you do this right; you will learn a lot.
  • Be prepared for taking on additional, higher risk, responsibilities.

By the way, I became actively engaged in the project, working with other senior people in the organization. Over a period of about eighteen months my recognition and contribution grew. The project was successfully implemented and I never looked back.

Ask the question!  –  How can I help you?

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