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 Transparent Entrepreneur

There’s a priceless element to an entrepreneur’s success when it comes to his or her customers, employees and investors. This element can be broken. It can be elusive. And it can be very difficult to regain when lost. Of course, I’m talking about “trust.” But this isn’t so much a blog about trust as it is one of the foundational components to building trust. Let’s explore the concept of transparency.

Transparency is a word that is used a lot these days – sometimes it becomes a bit trite as well as overused. Don’t you just love print advertising and television commercials that implore us to “trust” the company peddling the product? My guard goes up when I hear this sort of naked appeal – I probably am much more cynical about companies that resort to this messaging. If we start with the premise that “trust” is the given baseline, why then, is there a need to say, “Trust me?”

If I do a poor job of delivering what I promise to my customers, I’d much rather admit in an open and honest manner that I screwed up. Too many times we see companies stonewall, deny and otherwise obfuscate when the train goes off the track. This results in mistrust rather than accomplishing whatever we had hoped for by not being transparent. The old saying that the cover-up is worse than the crime certainly applies here!

Transparency begins with the basic core value of integrity. Either we have it or we don’t. We use this core value to guide us in the actions we take to fulfill transparency. I know that there are those who will say, “I’d like to be more transparent but in today’s litigious society I can’t say what I really want to say – I’ll be sued if I do!” However, there are ways to be open and honest without creating legal jeopardy.

We must also remember that most people don’t like surprises – at least not the negative kind. This is especially true when we’re working with our team members and investors. A number of years ago we acquired some land and launched a residential subdivision which turned out to be a bad idea. Shortly after we completed the purchase, installed the streets and sold our first three lots, the financial world came to an end (2008 – 2009). Our lot sales came to a screeching halt and remained very anemic for several years thereafter. We had raised substantial investor equity for this project and needless to say, the lack of sales was a difficult thing to report. Nevertheless, we dutifully wrote and sent investor reports every year laying out the facts. There was no sugarcoating, nor did we try to sound overly hopeful. Eventually there was good news to report and we were naturally pleased to do so. I’ve been told by several of our investors that they never lost confidence or trust in us because we were totally transparent throughout the process. It also helped that we explained in detail what we were doing to try and solve the problem.

Transparency means getting in front of the message rather than being behind the curve. Here’s an example. We learned that a major employer was about to close its doors in a market where we had an apartment property. Immediately, we contacted the investor and let him know that this was happening and apprised him of how we thought this closure might impact the property. We also laid out our plan of action for minimizing the negative impact to the investment. He was also an investor in another property in the same market that was handled by one of our competitors. He told us he never heard from the competitor and appreciated the fact that we delivered bad news as soon as we knew it. Our transparent approach built trust and enabled us to do more business with this investor.

Transparency is one of the cornerstones of trust. By operating with integrity, we are never afraid to deliver good news or bad, and share all that is relevant with our customers, team and investors.

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 Adversity-Beating Entrepreneur

An airplane wing gains lift by taking off into the wind. This then causes the airplane to defy gravity and fly . . . an entrepreneurial metaphor if ever there was one. Interestingly, in my pilot days I once experimented with a downwind takeoff (on a very long runway) and could barely get off the ground. I quickly put the plane back on the runway and ended the experiment!

To build a muscle we exercise it regularly adding more weight and repetitions. Members of the military become elite Seals, Green Berets, Delta Force and Rangers by undergoing rigorous training involving obstacles that severely test the physical and psychological strength of a human being. In Kenya, long distance runners often wear no shoes as they traverse inhospitable terrain, toughening the soles of their feet in the process. I think you can probably see the lessons here.

Adversity can be an entrepreneur’s best friend if we allow it to be. If success comes without challenge, it’s easy to become complacent. We’re also robbed of growth opportunities that result from what we learn as we work through various hardships on the road to achievement. No one says we must like adversity. But avoiding it and fighting it does not work. I’ve found that the most constructive approach is to actually embrace it. For me this means relaxing and easing into adversity. It means establishing a positive mindset and expecting that much good will comes from the experience. We’ve all heard the term “silver linings” and used it many times. Often, we look back on what has transpired and almost as a consolation prize we identify the silver linings. Looking for them in advance can give us the lift that we need to fly through the clouds.

In addition to the tangible benefits that come from overcoming adversity in specific situations, there are numerous more global wins that can occur. Think about the last time you had a tough puzzle to solve. Perhaps one of the outcomes was that of heightened creativity and innovation. When faced with the prospects of failure our creative instincts kick in and the results can be amazing. We also find that collaboration and teamwork increases reinforcing the notion that two heads are better than one. While I thrive on making sense of complexity and solving tough problems, I find that doing it with others is more productive and builds a stronger organization.

Suppose a professional basketball team plays a game against the best high school team in the country. There’s no doubt about which team would win. Now, imagine that the same NBA team plays against the reigning world champion NBA team and beats them. Which win do you suppose offers a greater sense of accomplishment? We need to feel like we are doing something really worthwhile which can be difficult when we prevail without any struggle whatsoever.

Adversity helps us to identify weaknesses within our company as well as with our strategy. When we aren’t tested and succeed anyway, we don’t really know what could happen if our feet were held to the fire. Challenges and obstacles also allow us to develop resilience and perseverance – both individually and organizationally. I truly hated those first few months of my career when I was an apartment manager. I was kicked in the teeth, the rear and every other part of my body – I was totally miserable. But something finally clicked, and I figured it out. Quitting wasn’t an option for many reasons – thank goodness! Now I look back and understand how valuable the tough times were in teaching me how to get off the ground and back on the horse.

When we embrace adversity, we can make it work for us like an airplane uses the wind to take off. Then it can become a powerful tool in the entrepreneur’s toolbox.

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 “Lucky” Entrepreneur

How often have you encountered situations where you conclude that luck must have played a part in the outcome? Perhaps you barely escaped being involved in a horrific traffic accident. Or you walked into a meeting with a prospective customer with whom you’d never spoken and won a major account just by “being in the right place at the right time.” Is someone who seemingly sails through life without struggle just lucky? What about fate? Is our destination already mapped for us? Are some people pre-ordained to succeed and others to fail? Could it be that we use “luck” and “fate” as rationale for something we don’t understand or can’t explain?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and profess that I believe luck and fate are mostly myths. Since no one can prove or disprove this statement, I think I’m pretty safe. Notice I didn’t completely rule out either concept . . . because I can’t be totally certain. But I do think that how we live our lives has a lot to do with what we might otherwise perceive as luck or fate. While this may sound a bit New Age, stick with me on this.

I am totally committed to the notion that positive energy exists and when we live a positive life in every way possible, good things come to us. Does this mean that a positive lifestyle provides protection from bad things happening to us? I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible, but I prefer to look at . . . yes, the positive side of this. Here’s what I know for sure. When I’m thinking positive thoughts my heart rate is lower, my head is clearer and I’m more often “in the zone.” I’m much less resistive to new ideas and my creativity is off the charts.

Successful outcomes are a combination of many things. It helps to have talent, skill, intelligence, hard work, determination and perseverance. Everyone has talent. Unfortunately, many people don’t dig deeply enough to discover their true talent – but it’s there. Skill can be learned and developed. Almost everyone can learn and develop a skill. Intelligence is innate, but even those individuals with average or below-average IQs can be very successful by learning how to think. Yes, there are many who are allergic to hard work, but everyone has the opportunity to work hard. With the right mindset, anyone can possess enormous amounts of determination. And of course we all can persevere if we choose to be patient. Too often, people are willing to give up because they aren’t determined and patient enough. Are people who consistently enjoy high levels of success just lucky, or have they discovered their talent, honed their skill, learned how to think critically, worked hard, been doggedly determined and are supremely patient?

Who needs luck when we can wrap a cocoon of energy from a positive mindset around our talent, skill, intelligence, hard work, determination and perseverance? The universe works in amazing ways and perhaps we resist negativity and bad outcomes by living inside this cocoon? Suppose we’re competing for a contract and we lose. Some might say that our woo-woo positive approach didn’t work. But I choose to see it differently. Instead, I get very excited when I don’t win because it means that something better is in store for me. In the moment that may be hard to see. But I’ve experienced this concept countless times. There have actually been instances when I’ve later learned that what we “lost” would not necessarily have been right for us in the first place. I remember vying to acquire an apartment property in a small town but did not win the bid. A few months later the major employer in that town pulled up stakes and left – occupancy at the apartment property we had wanted to buy was devastated.

Luck and fate are abstractions that can allow us to rationalize our success or failure. Living the most positive lifestyle possible eliminates the need for carrying a rabbit’s foot or wearing a garlic necklace to ward off evil spirits.

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 Risk-Averse Entrepreneur

When is the last time you thought about being eaten by an alligator? When was the last time you contemplated being run over by a cement mixer? Or, how about being beaned in the head by a meteorite? Probably never – right? The risk of any of these things ever happening is so low they never even crossed your mind. But there’s that pesky word that entrepreneurs love to hate . . . risk. As I write this, we’re closing in on the end of the year and it’s a good time to take stock of a lot of things.

Have you ever created a Risk Matrix? If not, let me provide some context. We entrepreneurs tend to rock and roll a lot. We have a lot on our plate and are generally an optimistic bunch. When it comes to the subject of risk, we may not spend much time in contemplation. We roll with the punches and keep moving forward. This philosophy works most of the time – until it doesn’t. Sometimes what interrupts that forward movement is a risk we didn’t see coming.

Here’s how the Risk Matrix works. Slow down for a moment. Stop juggling. Don’t worry about e-mails, sales figures, meetings, personnel issues and the host of other things that occupy our mind throughout the day. Instead become singularly focused on this exercise. Let’s brainstorm for a while and identify all the different risks that we encounter in our business or whatever endeavor in which we are engaged. I know that it may be hard, but it’s very necessary for us to follow through and complete this inventory. We need to turn over every stone even if we believe there’s nothing under some of them. There are competitive risks, operational risks, capital risks and macro risks. It’s important that we not leave a single one off of the matrix.

Once we have determined all the risks, we must then figure out how to mitigate them. This will undoubtedly require some strategic thinking on our part. What will we do if our top salesperson walks out the door? How will we respond if a competitor opens a store right across the street? If raw material prices increase by 20% how will we preserve our margins? Suppose our largest client wants to double the amount of business that it does with us? All of these are risks that need to be addressed. And our cataloging of risks has come about based upon the knowledge and understanding we have gained toiling in the trenches day-in and day-out.

Ultimately our Risk Matrix is populated. Perhaps we’ve flagged 20 different ways our train could derail. And maybe there are 30 different mitigation strategies and tactics that we’ve developed to address those risks. Regardless, we’ve spotted the gaps and done our best to plug them as effectively as possible. But there’s still another step to be taken. Suppose that a few of our mitigation strategies or tactics don’t work as advertised? Maybe one or more of the risks leak through and have an adverse impact on our organization. What now? We can solve this by also creating contingency plans for that “just in case” situation where a risk overpowers our mitigation efforts. In other words, what specifically will we do if our mitigation strategy to keep that top salesperson in the fold fails because he/she gets eaten by an alligator? Gee, we didn’t think about that!

I was a Boy Scout, and everyone knows that our motto is “Be Prepared.” Entrepreneurs need to adopt this motto relative to the risks that we face every day. In doing so, we move from being risk takers to risk managers. As individuals the concept is also just as applicable. What personal risks are we exposed to? We deal with personal risks to the loss of our home, car, health and life through various forms of insurance. Perhaps there are other risks that aren’t insurable in a traditional sense, to which we should give thought.

Here’s the bottom line. We can blithely wander through life oblivious to the meteor speeding toward us from outer space. Or we can spend a few minutes once in a while and think about what could conk us on the head and what we can do to avoid the unpleasant side effects.

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 Wealthy Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship has long been the proven path to wealth – great wealth in fact. For decades we’ve heard the rags-to-riches stories about men and women who have had an idea and built a successful company around it. I don’t need to cite these examples because you have already heard them over and over. Normal, ordinary people have become billionaires and centimillionaires through their entrepreneurial endeavors. But I want to focus on wealth differently in this blog.

Early in my career my focus was on making a lot of money. I don’t think I was a whole lot different than many other young, driven, Type A people. I went about my business always checking my bank balance and trying to figure out how to add another zero or two. And the harder I tried, the more elusive the result seemed to become. I scrimped and saved and eventually enjoyed a nice material lifestyle – but the big dollars that I coveted never seemed to come.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the shift occurred or what triggered it, but one day I found myself less obsessed with the end result (a large net worth) and more focused on the process of what I was doing and the joy it brought me. The money and wealth accumulation became secondary to actually building the business with my partners. Once I did this, the dollar rewards appeared – and sometimes in ways I’d never dreamed. There’s a constellation in the night sky that illustrates this perfectly. When we try and look directly at the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters) it’s hard to see all the stars. But when we focus on a nearby star or constellation, the Pleiades can be vividly seen in our peripheral vision. In other words, trying to see the Seven Sisters head-on is frustrating and nearly impossible with the naked eye. But when our focus is elsewhere, the star cluster comes into view with greater clarity. This became a perfect metaphor for my situation.

Along the way I have discovered there are many more elements to wealth than simply money. The entrepreneur who thinks that life is only about making tons of money is going to miss many opportunities to become fabulously wealthy in other ways. Let’s explore some of these possibilities.

At this stage of my life I value the relationships with which I’m blessed as much as the dollars that come my way. I’ve long believed in collecting as many relationships over the course of my life as possible for the purpose of serving others. These relationships have been developed without quid pro quo. In other words, I serve my relationships without any expectation of something in return. The results have been incredible with countless friends and acquaintances whose lives I have hopefully impacted in a positive way. I consider myself wealthy beyond my wildest dreams through the knowledge that I am helping so many others.

Another aspect of wealth for me is the pride of accomplishment. Yes, I’m extremely proud of all that I’ve accomplished whether it be in my career, civic activities or avocations. This pride is not something for which I need to be recognized outwardly. Instead, it comes from the satisfaction of knowing that I succeeded at something – often something very difficult. Over the years, this success adds to my overall wealth of being.

I am a very wealthy man when it comes to the diverse and active life I’ve led. I can honestly say that I’ve never experienced a day where I’ve been bored. My waking hours are filled with creativity and new experiences. I always see life in full and glorious color. There is no such thing as monotony in what I do. Also, my health is my wealth. I was adopted and have no idea my genetic history. So, I have worked very hard to maintain great health as though I am constantly at risk. Exercise, eating right, maintaining an optimal weight level, and regular consultations with medical professionals has enabled me to remain vibrant and physically fit.

Finally, my family is a huge source of my wealth. I’m blessed to have had a nearly 50-year relationship with my wife; two amazing and talented daughters and a son-in-law; three beautiful grandchildren, and a host of cousins and in-laws. Unfortunately, both sets of our parents are gone, but we had wonderful relationships with them while they were alive. Love abounds every single day and has generated pleasant memories that will last a lifetime.

Truly, I believe that I fit the definition of the Wealthy Entrepreneur. Money is a part of the equation but there’s so much more including relationships with friends and acquaintances, pride of accomplishment, a diverse and active life, great health and an incredible family. I hope that you too can enjoy such bountiful wealth!

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 Outwardly Focused Entrepreneur

I was talking with a friend the other day and he mentioned that he gets up tight speaking in public. I’ve had conversations over the years with others who expressed varying degrees of self-consciousness about a myriad of issues. In some cases, there was a dislike for attending functions that would require meeting large numbers of people. In other instances, it was a solo meeting with a high profile individual. Someone even mentioned how nervous they were during a radio interview. Entrepreneurs are thrust into a multitude of situations that require interacting with others and we must be able to do so gracefully and easily.

Being self-conscious is inwardly focused. I remember having no issue speaking in public during high school. And in my early college days I spoke at political events and in other situations with relative ease. Then one day I went to class completely unprepared and had to make a presentation – and I bombed. What an embarrassing and humiliating experience! It rattled me to the point that I was self-conscious about public speaking for a number of years thereafter. I tried everything advised by the experts. Take deep breaths. Smile. Tell a joke. I even envisioned a naked audience! I suppose these tips worked to a small degree, but they weren’t the panacea.

What I eventually figured out was that I needed to get out of myself. In other words, I needed to get out of my own way. I was holding me back. Notice that there were a lot of “I” and “me” words in what I just said. And that was the problem. I was looking inward rather than outward. I was making the situation about me and not what I was truly there to do. Over the years I’ve spoken countless times in public and actually enjoy it. Now there’s more an anticipation of excitement rather than dread. And I’m energized meeting people in large and small groups alike.

Allow me to illustrate the notion of “getting out of myself” with another story. In October 2016, my mother-in-law passed away; she had asked me to deliver the eulogy at her funeral. I prepared and practiced my remarks and thought a great deal about how I might react in the moment. My biggest concern was the possibility of becoming emotional during the eulogy. This in itself wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, except this sort of emotion can be contagious – especially for a grieving family. When the time came, I understood immediately that the remarks to be made were not about me. This was an occasion to honor and celebrate my mother-in-law. And thus, I became totally outwardly focused.

Most of us have an innate desire to be liked and/or thought well of by others. When we begin to have doubts that others may not like us, we can become very nervous or even embarrassed. I suppose for many of us this goes back to childhood days when we may have been mocked at some point in time. Young children can be brutally candid to the point that scars are caused and invariably must be dealt with when we become adults. Developing a strong sense of self-worth – warts and all – is important to overcoming self-consciousness. And when we can get out of ourselves and focus on others, we push unhealthy self-awareness totally out of the picture. This is true for public speaking as well as interactions with others – in groups or one-on-one. Warren Buffet speaks often in public. He’s not a handsome man and he’s not particularly articulate. But his words can be captivating because he is incredibly comfortable in his own skin and clearly is focused on his audience rather than himself.

So, here’s the simple truth. When we are preparing for a presentation, a speech or interacting with others in a group setting, think about who it’s for. Is it about us? Or is it for others? When we can shine the spotlight away from ourselves, we are getting out of our own way and our encounter will be filled with ease and grace.

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 Modern Entrepreneur/Leader

I recently came across an article by Stefan Stern from the Financial Times publication dated November 10, 2008. “While cleaning out his attic, a British business leader stumbled upon some typewritten notes on leadership from the 1950s. ‘Leadership is the art of influencing a body of people to follow a certain course of action, the art of controlling them and getting the best out of them.’” Sounds kind of old-fashioned, doesn’t it? The “art of controlling them?” That’s an attitude that’s not likely to win many awards in this day and age. The article and this statement in particular got me to thinking about leadership. And because I’ve lived long enough, I’ve had the good fortune to experience many different leadership styles. So, here are some personal observations that have helped me develop my own leadership style.

Entrepreneurs are often “quick on the draw.” A team member asks a question or brings us a problem and our instinct is to provide the answer or solve the problem. Then we move on . . . quickly. In the old days, that would probably have been considered “leadership.” One of my goals is to develop a sustainable organization that is no longer dependent solely upon me. If I answer every question and offer every solution, how does this support others in their quest to step-up and become leaders in their own right? I believe that leadership involves leading people to answers and solutions rather than simply telling them.

I’ve heard certain pro athletes and a number of entrepreneurs who say it’s not their job to be role models. It seems to me that anyone who has the megaphone ought to savor the opportunity to set an example for others. Doing so also enables us to become more accountable to our team. Back to the sustainable organization concept for a moment – do I want to display anger; yell at people; exhibit boorish behavior, and generally put my ego front and center? When I model this way, what message does it send to up-and-coming leaders? Here’s the simple truth for me. I don’t want to show any sort of negative behavior for which I should apologize.

One of the toughest aspects of being an entrepreneur is communicating our vision to our team. Most of us have a vision of some sort locked away in our brains. I was asked for years by my teammates for my vision, but never could figure out how to articulate it clearly until recently. Having a vision and communicating that vision are two entirely different things. When I mentor other entrepreneurs, I ask them a very basic question. What does it look like when we get there? Focusing on this question eliminates the psychobabble and gets to the heart of the matter. In plain English it requires that we paint a word picture that everyone can understand. We should never forget that people are drawn to leaders who can express a strong and powerful vision.

As a leader, how much time do you spend working on your business rather than in your business? I can tell you that I love doing complicated real estate deals. Without question, that’s working in my business. It would be very easy (and profitable) for me to focus all of my time and energy on buying and owning apartment properties. But that doesn’t advance the cause for the sustainable organization that I have envisioned. Thus, I must spend significant time working on my business. This involves developing a wide range of strategic initiatives, cultivating and educating team members, and helping to define our mission. A great leader will spend far more time working on his or her business than working in it.

While there are many other modern leadership traits to be explored, the last one on which I want to focus is that of attitude. Leaders with negative attitudes generally produce negative results. Over the past four-plus decades I think I’ve become more and more positive and optimistic. I realized that it’s not much fun to work in a negative environment. And as a leader, if I’m down-in-the-mouth it’s pretty hard for that attitude not to become contagious. I’ve come to realize that there’s always a silver lining in every situation and it’s my aim to find it. This doesn’t mean that negative things won’t happen – they do. But the faster we can move on and regain positive footing, the faster we’ll get back on track. It’s my goal to be a positive and optimistic leader every second of the day.

Modern leadership still embodies ageless basics and fundamentals. But there are some “new age” twists that help propel us to new heights of success and create sustainable organizations in the process.

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.