About anentrepreneurswords

R. Lee Harris grew up in Manhattan, Kansas and has lived in the Kansas City area since 1977. A 1975 graduate of Kansas State University, Harris began his career with Cohen-Esrey, LLC as an apartment manager two weeks after he graduated. Now president and CEO, he is involved in apartment management, development and investment; construction and tax credit syndication on a nationwide scale. Over the course of his career Harris has overseen the management of more than 27 million square feet of office building, shopping center and industrial space and nearly 60,000 multi-family units. He has started dozens of business enterprises over the past 40+ years. In 1991, Harris wrote a book entitled, The Customer Is King! published by Quality Press of Milwaukee. In 2012 he authored the book, An Entrepreneur's Words to Live By. He has mentored a number of business people over the years and has been a long-time participant in the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program. He and his wife Barb have two grown daughters and one grandson. They are active in their church, community and university.

The Entrepreneur and the Dirty Diaper

Let me set the scene. We get a call from a customer and boy is he mad. He rants and raves about how he’s been wronged by one of our team members. “She was so incredibly rude to me!” he exclaims. “And she even laughed at me when I explained my issue.” Honestly, what is our first thought? It may be that we can’t believe our team member would act in this manner. We may also prepare ourselves to have a serious conversation with this team member and really lay down the law. Perhaps we are even ready to put a note in the personnel file about the incident. What happens next? We’re plenty steamed, so we track down our team member and lay out the situation in a somewhat accusatory fashion offering plenty of righteous indignation in the process. Except . . . it turns out that the customer was all wrong. What happened here? I call it the “The Case of the Dirty Diaper Tossed Over the Cliff.”

In this situation, we heard a complaint (the Dirty Diaper) and immediately jumped to a conclusion (the Cliff). We failed to gather solid evidence in a calm and reasonable fashion and instead rushed into an unpleasant encounter with our team member half-cocked. In this specific scenario, had we conducted a proper investigation we would have discovered that there was a witness – another customer – who observed the whole thing. And after talking to this customer, we learned that the accuser had an axe to grind with our team member and called her names and said ugly things to her. Not the other way around. Unfortunately, we failed to give her the benefit of the doubt when we launched into our accusation which of course caused unnecessary tension.

In the “heat of battle” aka/confrontational situations – it’s easy to sympathize with the party that is upset. Perhaps our team has had the type of issues in the past that are being presented in the current situation. We instinctively may have a tendency to jump to erroneous conclusions and even worse, act upon them. The fallout from this approach can be devastating. Our team member felt that we weren’t supporting her and the feelings of trust she had for us were broken. Other team members learned of the incident and the trust with them was damaged as well. Ultimately the team member involved quit – all because this matter was so incredibly mishandled.

Maybe this has never happened to you. I truly hope that is the case. I’ve seen it occur in my own organization and I’ve even been the “accuser” in a bit of a milder way, but nonetheless I didn’t do my homework first. I’ve resolved to listen carefully to information that is being provided by the complainant and ask questions sufficient to fully understand this person’s point of view. I also try to glean as many facts as possible. Often there’s a lot of emotion involved, and the “diaper” gets really dirty very fast. It’s critical to be adequately sympathetic without taking sides and try to focus on the facts. Then, rather than taking the “dirty diaper” and “throwing it off the cliff,” I try to factually determine the other side of the situation without accusation or condemnation.

There will be times when the facts presented by the two parties are vastly different. Let’s assume for a moment that there are no witnesses and there’s just no way to corroborate either version of the encounter. We have to be very careful passing judgment in such situations and determining that one party is right and the other is wrong. Instead, we offer our counsel with the intent to coach our team member, and we do what we can to placate the party who is aggrieved. In a sense, we need to operate as would a judge or jury. If the evidence is insufficient, it’s pretty hard to render a clear decision. Should a pattern develop with our team member where we learn of similar issues occurring on an ongoing basis, we may need to take stronger action based upon such a pattern.

Strong teams are built on trust. We must protect this trust by handling contentious issues in a calm and measured fashion; gathering evidence and resisting the inclination to jump to conclusions.

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.

Entrepreneurs Beware!

We live in a hypersensitive society today. It seems as though every time we turn around someone is being offended by something. It may be words, actions, facial expressions or even the way someone looks. The whole notion of being offended stems from a belief that we are somehow victims. Victims of what, I’m not really sure. But our culture is at a point where it promotes victimhood and all that goes with it. This is a very dangerous place for entrepreneurs to be.

Many of us Baby Boomers raised our children in an environment where everybody wins and there were no losers. I remember sporting events in which our daughters participated, and each child received a ribbon or a small trophy. Obviously in the real world there are winners and losers yet somehow, losing has become linked with victimization. I’m not saying that this is the sole reason for the hypersensitivity we are experiencing but it may be a contributing factor.

Entrepreneurs are in a tough spot. On the one hand we want to be sufficiently sensitive to saying or doing things that others could perceive as a slight. And yet we are in a rough and tumble business world that takes no prisoners. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply treat others as we would like to be treated. I’ve grown pretty thick skin over the years and as others will attest, it’s pretty hard to offend me. A few years ago, I took a computerized test that measured resilience among a number of traits and tendencies. My score was 97 out of 100 which I’m told indicates that I have very strong self-acceptance. My point in sharing is to demonstrate that I may be somewhat oblivious to attempts by others to offend me. So, what to do?

First, we need to measure our intent when we are interacting with others. Do we say certain things to another person because we want to make them feel inferior? Do we take certain actions because we want to “send a message” to a specific individual that we expect could result in hurt feelings? A compassionate leader will communicate honestly and openly while doing so with sufficient empathy. His or her ego will be totally eliminated from the interaction. If our intent is pure and we’ve separated from our ego, then it is less likely that we will offend someone.

Second, it’s important to understand what behavior is unacceptable. This is especially challenging from a generational perspective. A young female colleague of mine was at a luncheon recently. She shared that she sat next to an older man (Boomer generation) who was nice but commented as they were leaving that he was pleased to have been able to sit next to such an attractive young woman. My colleague was not offended but related that she thought the comment was unnecessary and inappropriate. What was intended as a compliment by an older man was interpreted as mild condescension by a younger woman. While I doubt that it was his intent to be condescending, it was clear that he has not learned that you just don’t say things like this.

I’m not advocating for political correctness. We’ve gone completely overboard with PC and it’s causing huge problems in our country. But I do think that we need to pay closer attention to how we might be perceived by others. And let’s do our own gut check. Do we find ourselves being offended with any frequency? If so, we might benefit from exploring what we see when we look in the mirror. Do we have a positive or negative self-image? Are we preoccupied with conflict or feelings of inferiority? If so, we may be prone to being easily offended.

As entrepreneurs we must develop thick skin through a strongly positive self-image. At the same time, we need to measure our intent when interacting with others as well as understand what is unacceptable to society. Doing so will minimize the likelihood that we will offend others.

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 Credible Entrepreneur

I’ve had many aspiring entrepreneurs express frustration over their inability to gain traction in the marketplace with their products or services. Sometimes they tell me that others in their organizations won’t take them seriously. I can remember my early days in business – especially during my twenties – when I was treated like a little boy and being patted on the head periodically. I would work my tail off only to have the client want to talk about his property with our CEO and not me. At times it felt downright condescending.

I finally (and painfully) realized that everyone at my age was experiencing the same thing and much of this treatment was simply a function of youth. But the other lesson I learned was that of credibility. While there are many elements to credibility there is a primary formula that I discovered.

Results + Consistency = Credibility

Let’s break this down further. Results do not necessarily correlate with effort. Yes, I like members of our team to work hard and make a great effort but that doesn’t mean the job gets done. There were times in the past where it was difficult to terminate an employee because I knew that person had given his all and no one had worked harder. Unfortunately, even with all of the blood, sweat and tears this person still wasn’t getting the necessary results. It was kind of like studying diligently for an exam in school and still getting an F. The professor really didn’t care about the three all-nighters; only that in the end the answers were wrong.

Results are produced through a combination of skill, perseverance, creativity, timing, risk management, training, attitude and yes, effort. If any aspect of this combination is out of whack we might fail or barely produce an acceptable outcome. This leads us to the second factor in the formula – consistency.

Here’s an obvious statement. When we are hit or miss with our results we are thus inconsistent which damages our credibility. The goal is always to produce high quality, consistent results. How does McDonald’s turn out the same identical hamburger no matter what store we visit? It’s accomplished through a fanatical adherence to specific standards and delivered through comprehensive systems and processes. McDonald’s uses the very same equipment at every location. They purchase in bulk the ingredients used to make the hamburger and are extremely exacting in their specifications for the quality and composition of these ingredients. Employee training is intense and standardized. Quality control measures are baked into their culture. Everything they do is geared to providing a consistent high quality customer experience.

When we can “McDonaldize” our operations we greatly improve our chances to achieve consistency. But it’s not enough to just be consistent. There are some companies that are consistent . . . they are just consistently terrible. For example, why is it that so many of the cable television providers receive consistently terrible customer service ratings? Ditto the U.S. Postal Service? When I send a document via FedEx or UPS I know that it will arrive exactly when it is supposed to. But a similar delivery by the USPS has always been consistently inconsistent for me. I speculate that this may have something to do with business models and customer focus. A business model that is designed around selling a product or service – i.e. cable TV or overnight letters, is less likely to generate consistent quality results. By contrast, an enterprise dedicated to delivering an amazing customer experience is more likely to far and away be the winner.

Our credibility is built on a foundation of producing consistent high quality results. Implementing strong systems and processes focused on wowing the customer helps maintain our hard-earned credibility.

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.

Just Say No to “Straight-Line” Entrepreneurship!

I’ve advised every entrepreneur with whom I’ve ever worked to develop a business plan. But I never expect that the path to success outlined in such plans will ever be precisely followed. Some people say that a business plan is a blueprint for the organization. Nah, I don’t think so. I see the business plan as a starting point. I’m convinced that some businesses fail because the entrepreneur hews too closely to the plan. He or she fails to recognize the little signs along the way that point to major pitfalls for which a deviation is warranted . . . or enormous opportunities that will be missed due to a blind devotion to “the plan.”

The notion behind the business plan should be to organize our thoughts around a concept. That concept is actually the Vision, or what it looks like when we get there. An organized process for achieving the vision is extremely important for without it we find ourselves all over the map and failing to make any tangible progress. One of the problems for many entrepreneurs is working too much “in” the business rather than “on” the business. They become bogged down in the organized process tending to minor details best left to others. And weeks, months or even years later they look up and realize that the vision is still a distant fuzzy form way out in the distance. They are the victims of “straight-line thinking.”

Every organization needs some straight-line thinkers and doers. If not for them, there would be sheer chaos all the time. But straight-line thinking is not the job for the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur continually works to bring that “fuzzy form in the distance” into sharp focus. He or she realizes that there will be obstacles along the way and works to anticipate them and determine the path around, under or over. The straight-line thinker runs into the obstacles and is stopped – maybe permanently.

Straight-line systems and processes are critical. That said, they should be periodically reviewed and modified as necessary to meet the continually changing needs of the business. It’s the strategies that must be nimble and flexible. The simplest analogy is that of a car driving down the road. We are going from Temecula to Tucumcari which is nearly a straight 1,000-mile shot across I-40. Just west of Flagstaff the highway construction signs begin to appear – Road Closed Ahead. And the next thing we know there’s a detour on West Route 66 through Flagstaff. We follow the detour and a few miles later we’re back on I-40 on our way to Tucumcari, no worse for the wear. Easy peasy – right? The problem in the entrepreneurial world is that the detours are not so straightforward. Sometimes it’s a challenge to even know that there’s a need for a detour.

Exactly how do we decide when to be flexible with “the plan?” The answer is . . . always! We need to pay a great deal of attention to our customers and understand what they want and need. If we don’t, we may miss subtle signals that inform us that their preferences are shifting. We must stay abreast of what our competition is doing and especially how demand for our products and services might be changing. If a competitor is quickly garnering more market share, we had better know it and be prepared to react accordingly. It’s equally critical that we stay plugged in to the regulatory environment at all governmental levels. Understanding early in the game that a proposed set of rules or new laws could adversely impact our business gives us a chance to re-tool our operation to minimize the downside. And, we must have a constant pulse on the status of our team. Are our team members feeling fulfilled? Is their compensation in line with the work they are doing and the results they are producing? Again, if we aren’t mindful of our team, we’ll be caught flatfooted when someone jumps ship at a time we least expect it. Finally, while keeping our head down and putting one foot in front of the other, we may miss a golden opportunity that was unanticipated and could accelerate our sales and punch-up our bottom line in a major way.

Look, I’m all about focus and paying attention to the details. But as entrepreneurs, sometimes by following the straight-line path we’ll walk right into the mouth of a hungry grizzly bear. To thrive and prosper we use our business plan as a starting point; develop a strong set of systems and processes; but are nimble and flexible with the strategies we deploy that deliver us to our ultimate vision.

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.

Support for the Entrepreneur

Everyone knows that the entrepreneurial game is tough and unrelenting. Our state of mind often determines whether we’ll bend or break, and those of us with unlimited amounts of resilience will generally persevere and ultimately prevail. I believe more entrepreneurs could succeed were they to take advantage of the various forms of support that are available to the entrepreneurial community. One such form of support is that of an outside mentor.

Mentoring is somewhat different than coaching. Many entrepreneurs might do well with both. Coaching often tends to be for a shorter duration and can be more focused on certain skills and objectives. A mentor tends to build a long-term relationship with the mentee and takes a more holistic approach to their interactions. I have been mentoring for more than 20-years through both a structured program and informal relationships and have found it to be mutually rewarding.

It’s not necessary to find a mentor from the same industry as the entrepreneur. More important is the chemistry between mentor and mentee. Are the parties compatible and do they feel comfortable together? Is the mentor a good listener? Does the mentor refrain from being judgmental? I have found that one of the best ways I can serve a mentee is to ask a lot of questions and challenge traditional thinking. I remember having a conversation with a mentee many years ago who had a business that provided personal services that were charged by the hour. After a lot of conversation, I asked the entrepreneur when the last time the prices had been raised. She was absolutely certain that there was no way she could bump her hourly rate. I challenged her to test the market with a $.25 per hour increase. When she did, she found there was no resistance and that $.25 dropped straight to her bottom line.

A mentor should be a safe haven for an entrepreneur. All that is discussed should be done so on a confidential basis. The mentee must be able to freely share his or her concerns, anxieties, strategies and secrets without fear of having them repeated to others. Entrepreneurs must be willing to “let their hair down” and reveal all that is happening in their lives that could have an impact on their business. As a mentor, I cannot be completely helpful if I don’t understand the various factors that could be causing stress for an entrepreneur. Is the fact that a mentee is having marital troubles any of my business? Of course not. But . . . by knowing that something like this is present may explain why the entrepreneur is distracted. While I’m not a marriage counselor, I may be able to help the mentee cope with such pressures and be able to minimize the adverse effects on his or her daily life.

Here’s the thing about a mentor. We will offer our observations and provide some level of guidance. We’ll tell war stories and indicate whether we think the entrepreneur is on the right track or not. We’re not going to run the entrepreneur’s business. We’re not going to interfere or intervene. We’ll stay completely in the background and avoid overshadowing our mentees. It’s up to the entrepreneur to decide if he or she wants to listen and take the advice given. It’s up to the entrepreneur to do the heavy lifting. The mentoring process can make a profound difference for an entrepreneur or it can be a meaningless waste of time for both parties. Fortunately, I’ve never worked with a mentee who was a “know-it-all.” Every entrepreneur with whom I’ve had the pleasure to mentor has been open and receptive to the learning process and to having someone with whom they can bounce around ideas – good and bad.

With permission, mentors can hold entrepreneurs accountable. We can evaluate products and business practices and potentially identify blind spots that could be fatal from a customer’s perspective. We can help the entrepreneur set goals and create metrics for determining whether those goals are being met. And we can help an entrepreneur press the re-set button when nothing seems to be working.

A mentor can become a lifelong friend for an entrepreneur and serve as an advisor through thick and thin. I have been blessed to have many such relationships in my life and am so proud of the success realized by each of the wonderful entrepreneurs with whom I’ve been able to help.

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.

An Entrepreneur’s Most Valuable Asset

Earth, Wind & Fire recorded a song in 1979 called, After the Love Has Gone. And of course, there was the classic 1976 tune by KISS, Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em. There’s an eerie parallel with these titles and our relationships – with our friends and with our customers. Remember when we were growing up? Most of us had a number of friends during our school years. Then we launched our careers and families, and guess what? Many of those friendships went on hold. We found ourselves burning the candle at both ends and struggling to make the kids’ soccer games, juggle business trips with date nights, and generally keep our heads above water. Sound familiar? Gradually we sort of drifted away from all but a very small, close-knit group of friends. If we are introspective about our entrepreneurial lives, is the same thing happening with our business relationships?  

I’ve written before about my philosophy on relationships. I want to build and nurture as many relationships as possible over the course of my career for the purpose of serving them. And I’ve said before that I try to do this without any sense of quid pro quo. Deep at my core I believe that if we are truly committed to serving our relationships in whatever way possible, the Law of Attraction will bring great good into our lives.

So, what happens after the sale? We work hard for six months (sometimes much longer) to build a relationship with a prospective customer. Then she buys what we’re selling. We’re elated and we make sure that the product or service is delivered in fine fashion. Then what? Six months later, what have we done to maintain the relationship? If the customer is going to buy our product or service on a recurring basis, chances are that we’ll stay in touch and continue “selling.” Maybe we take the customer to a ballgame or out for dinner. But what about a customer that has purchased something and there’s virtually no chance that another purchase will occur in the future? Do we “love ‘em and leave ‘em?

It’s rare that we find an entrepreneur who builds the relationship for the purpose of serving it. Usually there are strings attached. I’ve been on the receiving end of this my entire life. When someone wants to sell me something, they butter me up and shower me with accolades, gifts and other forms of attention. If I don’t buy, they may try for a while, but eventually they drift away. If I do buy and there’s not a reason to buy the same product or service again, I’m usually dropped like a hot potato within a week. The National Sales Executive Association says that 80% of sales are made on the fifth through the twelfth contact. This means that a significant amount of time and effort must be invested to build a relationship sufficient to close the deal. This being the case, why would we not want to continue to maintain that relationship in perpetuity?

Some of us may be thinking, “This makes sense. Even though the customer might not buy again from us, keeping the relationship alive could be good for referrals.” Yes, this may be true, BUT once again we’ve attached strings to the relationship. What if we maintained the relationship because it’s the right thing for us to do? What if we maintained the relationship because we genuinely want to help other people? What if we maintained the relationship because it’s a form of expressing gratitude for all of the wonderful things that others have done for us? If we’re thinking that we just don’t have time to nurture relationships after the sale, then we are working against the Law of Attraction. There’s good flowing all around us – but if we start putting limits on our relationships, we’re preventing that good from flowing our way.

Maintaining friendships and business relationships requires an intentional effort. When we do so successfully, we find these relationships can be our most valuable asset.

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 Juggler

Have you ever heard of Anthony Gatto? I hadn’t either. Gatto has been on the list of the world’s best jugglers every year since 2003 when the list was first compiled. He started juggling when he was almost four years old and is the only juggler ever featured on a Topps trading card. Among his amazing performances were juggling eight balls for one minute and 13 seconds; nine balls for 54 seconds; seven rings for 15 minutes and six seconds and 12 rings with 12 catches. All are world records. I’ve tried many times and can’t even master juggling two balls – much less eight. I did notice that Gatto doesn’t hold any records for juggling chainsaws – so he must be a pretty smart guy!

For entrepreneurs the obvious metaphor here involves the juggling act that we perform every day. But I want to talk about it in a bit of a different context. The question I want to pose is that of focus vs. diversification. What do I mean by this? I’ve said before that I don’t like to take risk, but I’ll manage risk all day long. This is a Grand Canyon-huge distinction. Taking risk for me is akin to gambling – and I’m not a gambler. Managing risk is a process and allows me to stack the odds in my favor. So, what does focus vs. diversification have to do with managing risk?

There is a school of thought that says we should focus on what we do best. And we should hone our craft to the point that we then are the best at what we do. Several very successful companies are focused on a single product. Crocs, Spanx, Michelin, Roku and Gorilla Glue are all such companies. They have developed their product to the point that it’s in such high demand that there is no need to add to their product mix. Southwest Airlines has focused for decades on solely flying the Boeing 737 aircraft. The advantages for them are numerous including the manner in which they stock spare parts, train their mechanics and flight crews, route and position planes, etc.

I believe that there is an inherent risk to being so focused on a single product line. This risk includes business cycles where a particular product type might fall out of favor. Technological advances have been known to make many products/services obsolete. Remember Blockbuster Video? It was a high-flyer for a long time and was pretty much focused on a bricks and mortar delivery of videos. But it became so focused that it failed to realize that it needed to change its entire business model and product suite to adapt to rapidly changing consumer preferences. Now the company is out-of-business.

This brings me to the strategy of diversification. Our organization has always had multiple product lines. In the 1970s through the 1990s, we were primarily involved in the commercial real estate industry with leasing, brokerage and property management. And we handled office buildings, shopping centers, industrial facilities and apartment communities. In some years the leasing and brokerage business might be slow, but the property management business would be booming. Then there were times when the opposite occurred. Yet we were able to maintain fairly consistent revenues and margins throughout the various cycles we encountered.

Since 2000 we’ve diversified even more extensively including construction, maintenance service, building components distribution, tax credit syndication, apartment acquisitions, apartment development and venture capital investments (outside of the real estate world). We’ve organized into business units specializing in these areas with a managing director leading each. With this structure each leader is able to focus on being the best in class. The overall enterprise benefits from a highly diversified product/service offering balanced with a focus sufficient to excel. To accomplish this, a considerable investment was made in human resources to enable the focus and specialization. Our organization also wins with the vertical integration that has resulted. Multiple business units are able to participate in various internally generated projects as well as provide products and services to third parties.

Keeping a lot of balls in the air actually requires considerable focus. When we can do both successfully, we are able to minimize the risks that we face as entrepreneurs.

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.