The Opportunity-Seeking Entrepreneur

Knock-knock. Who’s there? Problem. Problem who? This childhood riddle is emblematic of a common perspective that many of our daily encounters present problems for us. But are they really problems? I’m sure that an argument can be made that anything a bit perplexing or where a less-than-favorable outcome is realized, could be considered a problem. But why do we choose to believe this so often? Some of us by nature are problem-solvers (I’ve been known to fall in this category) and so we may see situations as problems to be solved. But I submit that there is a different way to look at this.

For the last many years, I’ve become more and more inclined to be an “opportunity-seeker.” And what a difference it makes to see things as less problematic and more opportunistic. Obviously, this is a subtle shift in mindset – does it really matter what we call it? I believe that it does because of how we tend to react internally to problems versus opportunities. Some of our natural feelings when facing a problem may be dread, fear, surprise, fatigue, victimization, overload, resignation, procrastination and apathy. All of these feelings are cloaked in negativity. Of course, there are positive ways to view problems and many of us may do so; but I’ll bet that the natural tendency is to focus more on the negative perspective.

On the other hand, becoming an “opportunity-seeker” is a proactive and positive manner in which to move through challenging situations. Notice my language here. I didn’t talk about “facing” a problem. I didn’t talk about a “resolution.” Instead I used the words “move through challenging situations.” This sounds effortless but it’s not. However, the process of “moving through challenging situations” does not have to be filled with our own emotional downside drama. And there’s one component to be an “opportunity-seeker” that makes it all worthwhile in my view. We get to unleash our creativity.

Creativity is one of the most positive energies that we can experience. It’s much more expansive than just figuring out how to fix something. Metaphorically speaking, creativity enables us to make things bigger and better. I’m sure you’ve felt the frustration of trying to put together a puzzle where you simply can’t find the right piece. We just want to “fix” the situation by finding the missing piece and moving on – right? Contrast this with taking a pile of Lego® pieces and building an object right out of our minds-eye. That’s the difference between being a problem-solver and an opportunity seeker. Some situations will always require finding the right piece to the puzzle no matter how creative we want to be. But we can find a way to harness our creativity in every situation. In the literal case of the puzzle, perhaps we can become more imaginative in the way we sift through the pieces to find the right one. Or maybe we make a game out of it.

The office lease for our company’s space recently expired. Even though we’re a commercial real estate company we always leased space rather than owned it. In the past we were able to secure the leasing and management of an office building by offering to be a tenant and pay a market rent. After we sold the commercial side of our business to focus on apartments, we no longer needed to rent our corporate office space. We began the search for new office space nearly a year ahead of our lease expiration. Several buildings were possibilities and we got serious enough about one such building to make an offer to purchase it. In retrospect, it was a blessing that the seller was unwilling to come anywhere close to the price we wanted to pay, and the deal stalled. This building would have quickly been too small, and we would have been spread across three floors.

Then, I woke up in the middle of the night and the image of another building popped into my head. It wasn’t on the market and I had had a long relationship with the building owner. We reached out and lo and behold – the owner was willing to sell. We completed a private transaction several months thereafter and now occupy beautiful space in a much larger (and more attractive) building, with plenty of room to grow, and in a much better location. I am so glad that we didn’t try to “force” the opportunity we were seeking with the other building. The problem we faced on where to re-locate was solved with relative ease and grace.

When we choose to stop seeing challenging situations as problems, we cease limited ourselves to being only problem-solvers. Moving through challenging situations by looking for opportunities to be creative opens the way for feelings of joy, accomplishment, euphoria, happiness and satisfaction. Knock-knock. Who’s there? Opportunity!

The Assertive (or Aggressive?) Entrepreneur

Dear Entrepreneur:

I watched you the other day as you “took command” of a situation involving a vendor who works with your company. Obviously, the vendor did not perform his service satisfactorily – you certainly let him know this in no uncertain terms. I did get a little concerned when I saw the veins begin to pop out in your neck. I’m sure glad I wasn’t on the other end of that call!

Sincerely – One of your employees

Just reading this feels a bit embarrassing. Have you ever known anyone like this? Some entrepreneurs pride themselves in being very direct and matter of fact. They pull no punches and sugarcoat nothing. They wear their bluntness as a badge of honor. Unfortunately, they have become confused about the virtues of honesty and transparency and feel the need to demonstrate these traits in an extremely intense manner. But to what end? Did this approach resolve the situation? Did it build a stronger relationship? Is the vendor more or less likely to want to go out of his way for the entrepreneur in the future?

This brings us to an interesting point of discussion. Is it better to be more assertive or more aggressive? When we’re assertive, we’re able to be direct and straight-forward without becoming angry. Being aggressive typically brings with it a sort of heavy-handedness that evokes negativity. Often, aggression is more a demonstration of power than anything else. It’s a real art to being able to deal with a situation assertively where everyone walks away with generally positive feelings – but the message has been clearly delivered.

What can we do to re-pattern our aggressive tendencies and convert them into a more positive and assertive approach? Years ago, I took a Caliper Profile. It’s a computerized test that identifies traits and tendencies and is an excellent tool for hiring people. On a scale of 1 to 100, my Assertiveness score was a 99 and my Aggressiveness score was a 92. I was told that this was a bit of a dicey pattern. I could just as easily flip from being assertive to being aggressive – and sometimes too aggressive. Knowing this, I’ve been working for years to try and tone down my aggressiveness. I’ve learned that I need to keep my temper in check and try and remain as James Bond-like as possible. Sure, that may sound corny, but the goal is to be unflappable and even keeled.

I try to remember to keep a smile on my face even when the bullets are flying at me. I attempt to stay on a fact-path and eliminate emotion from my conversation. Every once-in-a-while when someone else is being aggressive I’ll succeed in lowering the volume of my voice. In turn, the other person may begin to calm down and lower his or her volume as well. Once the temper is in check, being assertive is much easier. Clear and persuasive arguments can be made in a cool and calm fashion. Now I’m working more on the intensity I convey, particularly with my body language. When I’m feeling quite passionate or positive about something, I can sit forward in my chair and raise my voice a bit – even though I’m not at all angry. I have to try harder to be less animated which some people can misinterpret as aggressiveness.

We are much more likely to reach our goals when we replace aggressiveness with assertiveness. Then the badge of honor we wear is that of positive outcomes instead of trampled feelings.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Bad News Bears

Uh-oh. Jack just learned that he did not win a contract that was supposedly all but certain. He was counting on this deal to make his quota and had been bragging to the vice-president of sales and his co-workers that it was in the bag. What’s more troubling is the fact that he’s been under the gun by upper management over the past few months to improve his production. Now what?

Jack has to deliver the bad news. The first thought running through his head is that he’s going to be fired on the spot. He’s deep in debt and has a wife and two small kids at home. What does he do? Unfortunately, Jack chooses to do what so often happens in situations like this. He fudges the truth. He tells his boss that he hasn’t yet “heard the final word” from the client. Jack holds onto a thread of hope that he might be able to salvage the deal.

It’s obvious that delivering bad news is never fun. It actually starts with an organization’s culture. What is the reaction to bad news by the leadership? Is there screaming, yelling and threats? How about chaos and recriminations? If so, this sets the tone for anyone on the wrong side of having to report unfavorable results. It’s human nature to try and avoid painful encounters of this sort. Thus, some people may have a tendency to stretch the truth, fudge the facts or outright lie about the situation, rather than endure the wrath of the boss.

In a healthy organization, delivering bad news is just another routine task to be performed. The enlightened leader will encourage team members to openly talk about what isn’t working including setbacks that have recently occurred or are anticipated. He or she will work with the team to understand what went wrong and how to avoid a similar result in the future. There’s no negative emotion or drama associated with this analysis. In so doing, team members feel safe in bringing news of any sort – good or bad.

A leader who operates in a fair and even-handed manner is entitled to expect full and total integrity from the team. The team member in a healthy organization who fudges the facts like Jack did should be dealt with in a severe manner. Here’s the calculus. I won’t blow up and make you feel lower than whale poop, and you owe me complete transparency. It’s as simple as that.

If you are part of an organization that struggles with bad news, first look inward and remember that it’s a two-way street. If the organization is unwilling to react in a calm and measured way, then it cannot expect team members to want to deliver bad tidings.

There’s another element to delivering bad news. It may be that the leader does not have an angry tantrum at all. This individual may always be very upbeat and optimistic. But members of his or her team may still not want to tell it like it is. Why? Because they don’t want to disappoint him. In many situations feeling like one has let down a co-worker or a leader is a powerful motive to duck or delay the inevitable. It’s circumstances like this where the leader must take care not to send any signals that he/she may be disappointed. In fact, this leader should go out of his way to encourage members of his team not to equate bad news with a disappointed boss.

One way to solve this dilemma is to embrace failure as simply a step in a process. A forward-thinking entrepreneur will model this attitude by sharing his or her failures with the team. Being vulnerable in this manner may encourage others to be more comfortable doing the same without fear of disappointing the leader.

Let’s replay Jack’s scenario with a different twist. Jack learns that he did not win the contract. He immediately goes to his boss and explains the facts of the situation. His boss says, “Jack, this reminds me of a situation a few years ago where I was positive I was going to win the brass ring only to be left holding the bag. But I scrambled together a radical new approach and took a long-shot by asking to see the client one last time. Believe it or not he changed his mind and I won the deal after all. You might try the same approach.” Maybe Jack went on to win the deal and maybe not. Regardless, there was no hesitation when it came time to deliver the bad news initially.

Delivering bad news can be done in a matter-of-fact fashion if an organization’s culture encourages it. If not, we can expect that people will take extreme measures to avoid this unpleasant task.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Entrepreneurial Delegator

Let’s look at two scenarios. A busy and stressed-out entrepreneur is on the run. He stops by the desk of a colleague and says the following, “I need some PowerPoint slides for a presentation about our XYZ product. This is a top priority – I need it ASAP.” Now, let’s contrast that with the same encounter but different characters.

A busy and stressed-out entrepreneur is on the run. She goes to the office of a colleague and sits down to explain what she needs. “We have an opportunity to make a presentation to the ABC Company for potentially one of the largest orders of our XYZ product ever received. We’ve been building a relationship with ABC for the past year and they called last night and said we could have 30 minutes on Tuesday. Could you please help me put together this presentation? I’m going to work on exactly what I’m going to say – would you be able to put together eight PowerPoint slides that show how the XYZ product is different than the top competing products? I’m wide open to any ideas you have to be creative here. I realize that this will require some juggling on your part – what is a reasonable timeline to get this completed? What can I do to help?”                                                                                                                                                     The difference in approaches isn’t hard to spot. In the first case, the entrepreneur performed the Dump and Run maneuver flawlessly. If Olympic judges were grading him, he would have nailed a perfect 10. In the second case, the entrepreneur used the Delegation technique. She too would have received high marks. So, if you were on the receiving end of this encounter, which of these entrepreneurs would you prefer to work with?

Dump or Delegate. Both start with the same letter but that’s where the similarity ends. Which is more efficient and effective? Some might say that from the entrepreneur’s perspective, handing off an assignment and quickly moving on to the next task is indeed efficient. And there’s no doubt that there are many things that simply can be “dumped” with a minimum of explanation. The problem is that some of us tend to make this the default practice rather than the exception. When I discussed this with another businessperson at some point in the past, he told me that “if my people aren’t smart enough to figure it out for themselves, then I have the wrong people.” I think I disagree . . . strongly.

Delegating work in a true sense requires collaboration. I’ve found the collaborative approach to be much more efficient and effective. Why? Because by spending the time necessary to bring others up-to-speed the chances for an error-free outcome increase substantially. Further, the odds also improve for a higher quality result. This happens because people are actually able to engage their brains in a much more comprehensive manner when they have a full understanding of the situation at hand. It stands to reason that if I just give someone a “snapshot” of what is needed without the broader context then I’m likely to get a narrowly focused work product.

Here are the steps I’ve found most productive when delegating to others.

  • First, I try to provide the whole story – not just snippets. In doing so, I’m showing respect to my colleague by making sure they have the same information as do I.
  • Second, I try to be as specific as I can about what I need. But I also encourage my colleague to be innovative to the extent the situation warrants. This sends a message of flexibility as opposed to rigidity. It also enables the colleague to “personalize” the finished product.
  • Third, I make sure my colleague understands the overall timeline. It’s important that the colleague understand when I learned of the assignment. How many times have we seen someone sit on a project then do the last-minute mad dash to finish in time? The last thing I want is for my co-worker to think I’m doing this to him or her. I also want my colleague to set the deadline for completing what I’ve asked to be produced. If his/her timing doesn’t work for the assignment, I can always negotiate a tighter date.

Our team grows stronger when we Delegate every chance we get. While it may take a little longer at the front end, the final result is usually much better than what comes from the Dump scenario.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The DIY Entrepreneur

Are you a DIY entrepreneur? True confessions – I used to be but have worked hard to become “reformed” in this category. I’m not necessarily saying that the DIY notion is entirely flawed. In fact, there are very healthy aspect to being DIY. Based upon my own experience and what I’ve observed over the years, here’s the profile of a DIY entrepreneur.

In the earlier days of my career, I worked hard to become educated about my industry and all its intricacies. I learned how to replace a toilet, effectively lease apartments, deliver spot-on zero-based budgets and identify great talent. I could get deep in the weeds better than anyone. And this eventually carried through to whatever position I was filling at the time. This level of detail was productive in that I knew what needed to be done in nearly every instance. It also became a trap when I found that other members of my team were sitting back and taking the attitude, “we don’t have to worry about that. Lee will eventually take care of it.”

The DIY entrepreneur often fails to delegate. Sometimes its delegating key functions and at other times its simply anything at all. I can well remember the times that I’d prepare a complicated financial model or call a client because I believed the task could be handled more quickly (and much better) if I just did it myself. While this may have been true at that moment in time, there were other things that I also needed to do that were being pushed to the backburner. I finally realized that this aspect of the DIY entrepreneur was actually counterproductive. I was not prioritizing my time correctly nor was I contributing to the growth of other team members who were being deprived of the opportunity to learn how to handle the tasks I was hoarding.

I also learned that being a DIY entrepreneur was a massive roadblock to scaling our business. No matter how efficient I thought I was, there was no way that I – as one person – could grow a complex enterprise by myself. Further, one of our initiatives is to create a sustainable organization that lasts well beyond the current leadership and perpetuates for generations to come. Hundreds of families – thousands of people – depend upon our family of companies for their livelihood. Growing and scaling the business is critical to our sustainability. Eventually I had to let go of so many of the things that I had handled in the past and trust others to do so instead. I found this to be somewhat liberating . . . but also a bit scary.

Why was it scary? Because I had not previously invested myself in the coaching and mentoring process. This is a common characteristic of the DIY entrepreneur. I know the high-powered leader of another business who has been extremely successful. He’s my age and has done amazing things in his career. On the downside, he’s not a coach or a mentor. He yells and curses at members of his team. His DIY style is that of command and control. I have often wondered what will happen to his company when the day comes that he keels over from a stroke or heart attack. As I have become more and more of a “reformed” DIY entrepreneur, I have found that coaching and mentoring offers amazing rewards – especially as I watch others carve-out success in their own right.

Many DIY entrepreneurs are loathed to share the spotlight. The businessperson previously referenced is always the focus of news articles and industry awards. There’s no question that he’s very accomplished in his field. But rarely do I ever see him compliment those who work for and with him – especially publicly. It thrills me to see members of our team win public recognition. My role now includes being one of the biggest cheerleaders for others in our organization and I love it!

Finally, the DIY entrepreneur may find it difficult to admit mistakes. Why? Because the burden rests entirely upon him or her. When one is in this position, we think we know that our way is absolutely the right way. We aren’t about to seek advice from others and when things don’t work out as planned, we have a tendency to place the blame elsewhere. Perhaps asking others for their thoughts and ideas is a signal of weakness in the mind of the DIY entrepreneur. As a result, we plunge ahead fearlessly and tirelessly . . . right off the proverbial cliff. Entrepreneurs who are truly self-confident and comfortable in their own skin don’t have a problem admitting they screwed up. They welcome and embrace the counsel of members of their team.

If you are a DIY entrepreneur there is hope for you. The “reform” process involves learning to prioritize, delegate, coach, mentor, trust others, share the spotlight and be willing to admit mistakes.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The (Stubborn) or (Persevering) Entrepreneur

Mules are interesting animals. They are a cross between a male donkey and a female horse. A mule is stronger than a horse and historically was used for heavy work in agriculture and timber. Mules are independent creatures and can be very obstinate and stubborn at times – hence the saying, “He’s stubborn as a mule.”

Tortoises are equally fascinating. They can live longer than 150 years and have hard shells that make them less vulnerable to predators. Tu’i Malila was the oldest tortoise on record, born in 1777 and died in 1965. If you’ve ever watched a tortoise, you know that they are slow, plodding reptiles. When they are presented with an obstacle, they find a way to go around it.

The metaphor for entrepreneurs is obvious. And notice that I’ve avoided the even more obvious example of the tortoise and the hare – that’s a whole different blog someday. Instead, the lesson here is about stubbornness vs. perseverance. As entrepreneurs, we are continually confronted with situations that require some level of perseverance. If we fail to persevere, we end up flitting all over the place and accomplishing nothing. But when does perseverance turn into stubbornness? Presumably stubbornness is not necessarily a desirable trait. The dictionary defines stubborn as “unreasonably obstinate; obstinately unmoving.”

The story of Milton Hershey is inspirational. He launched three candy companies in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. And all three failed. Hershey moved back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he started another company that made a unique type of caramel. But he was convinced that chocolate was the wave of the future and sold his caramel business to start the Hershey Company. Of course, the Hershey Company went on to become a huge success in the milk chocolate business.

Was Milton Hershey stubborn, or did he persevere? Back to the dictionary which defines persevere as “to persist in anything undertaken; maintain a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles, or discouragement; continue steadfastly.” I believe Hershey epitomized the definition of perseverance. He had a vision. He was constantly tweaking and refining his products. He surmounted his obstacles and eventually became highly successful.

Stubbornness is evidenced when we keep banging our heads against the wall trying the same things over and over. And it’s not working. Suppose we have a business that is struggling to gain traction. We’re not making much money – maybe even losing money – and we continue to keep doing what we’ve been without making any material changes. Now that’s stubborn.

Let’s take that same example and overlay it with perseverance. The business has been struggling to gain traction. We’re not making much money – maybe even losing money. But we believe in the long-term vision and aren’t about to throw in the towel. Instead, we step back and analyze what we’ve been doing. We do the research necessary to identify refinements and adjustments to our approach. Perhaps we even make a major pivot. Think about the tortoise. He reaches an obstacle that he can’t go over. Does he keep trying to climb over it without success? No, he “pivots” and moves a different direction, eventually ending up achieving his vision – whatever that might be for a tortoise. Perhaps our business needs a different approach to marketing and sales. Maybe we need to eliminate a particular product and add another. Regardless, we must do things differently than we have in the past. We don’t quit. We aren’t a victim. We simply get better at how we play the game.

Stubbornness doesn’t require much brainpower. There’s a lot of wallowing that occurs. Perseverance is smart. The vision persists. The ideas flow. And success is ultimately achieved.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Humble Entrepreneur

My daughter, son-in-law and their brood visited a fairly affluent Sunbelt community recently. They saw a lot of luxury cars, expensive jewelry, pricey condos and homes along with some monster yachts. I asked my son-in-law what surprised him the most about his experience and his response was not what I expected. He had several encounters with obviously well-to-do people that were less than pleasant.

In one instance he was preparing to pull into a parking place at a tony shopping center and a man tried to bull his way into the same space. I witnessed the incident and my son-in-law clearly was in the right. Yet the man berated him for not ceding the parking spot. There were other instances where people were pushy, impatient and downright rude. My son-in-law is still learning how to take these kinds of situations in stride. Instead of ignoring the bad behavior of others he chose to retort with his sarcastic wit.

There are a couple of lessons here for entrepreneurs and everyone in general. One of the wonderful benefits of entrepreneurship is the opportunity to gain substantial material wealth. And as our bank account grows, we may want to enjoy the fruits of our labor in the form of an upscale lifestyle. Long ago I adopted the philosophy that the “bigger” we get the humbler we become. By “bigger” I am referring to wealth, success, power and station in life. In other words, I would never want someone to identify me from a socio-economic standpoint by the way I act.

Unfortunately, there are those who think that their ascension to the riches they have accumulated entitles them to inhabit a special place in society. Metaphorically speaking they think it’s their right to go to the head of the line. Graciousness gives way to boorishness and snobbishness. There’s a very simple way to combat this attitude and prevent it from happening to us. My formula goes like this – I look to the person on my right and the person on my left and realize that I’m no better and no worse than either of those individuals. And, nothing I’ve done and nothing I will do will ever make me any better. Our true bounty comes from within – not from external sources. How we treat others is far more important than the price tag on any of our possessions.

The second lesson is that of how to respond to the kind of behavior I previously described. It’s a natural human reaction to be a bit defensive when we believe someone is attacking us. We want to stand our ground, and perhaps we even want to walk away as the winner of the bout. Newsflash – there is no victor when we engage in tit-for-tat. Sarcasm or verbal jabs may produce a momentary feeling of vindication but to what end? Did the other person change his or her mind? Did we actually solve the problem?

How should we respond? After sixty some-odd years I still remember my mother’s advice to “be the bigger person.” So, I’m pretty much done fighting with people. Instead, when I find myself in situations like my son-in-law experienced, I say two simple words . . . “I’m sorry.” It doesn’t matter if I’m 100% right, I say “I’m sorry.” At that point the other person doesn’t know what to say. They realize that anything more is pointless, and the situation is quickly defused. I can’t say that I am able to react this way every time, but it’s more often than not.

We have an opportunity to become more modest and unpretentious as we achieve more success in our lives. And with it comes eliminating the propensity to have the last word in confrontational situations.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.