The Expert Entrepreneur

As an entrepreneur, do you know it all? Most people will answer that they don’t. But guess what – we should! I’m speaking metaphorically of course. The point is that if we expect to win over the long haul, we had better be expert at what we do. When we are in command of the facts, we project confidence to others and feel it for ourselves. Malcom Gladwell famously said that it takes 10,000 hours of continuous and deliberate practice to become an expert. That’s five years of plying our craft before we become truly proficient. So, does this mean that after five years of working in the same profession that we are officially an expert? Not so. How much of our day is truly consumed with “continuous and deliberate practice?” I submit that there are several things we can do that put us in such a lane . . . and many more daily tasks that don’t qualify at all.

Study! One of the first steps in our quest toward entrepreneurial fluency is that of study and research. We read every trade publication we can get our hands on, and every book that is even semi-related to our industry. We surf the internet for the latest trends and news that might be salient. In the earlier days of my career, there were many articles that were ripped out of magazines and circulated throughout our office. Today it’s much easier to share information with others and here’s the key. We NEVER stop studying and researching. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been in the business for five years or 45 years, we continue to be a sponge for knowledge.

Professional designations! Earning a professional certification or designation is another step toward becoming an expert. One of the first things I did after I entered my industry was begin taking the coursework necessary to attain a professional designation. I was only 25 when I received it, and it helped overcome my obvious youth in establishing credibility within the industry. I also made some lifelong acquaintances that have been very helpful in my career.

Experiment! Part of the process of continuous and deliberate practice is experimentation. Through experimentation we find out what works and what doesn’t. It’s comforting to know that the aircraft in which we fly were developed by experts. When we have surgery, we know that experts developed the procedures and techniques. These experts perfected the airplane and surgical techniques through literally millions of iterations. We entrepreneurs should be bold and unafraid to continually experiment to discover new innovations.

Collaborate! Hand-in-hand with experimentation is collaboration. We look for every opportunity to work with others who may have solved similar problems or are seeking answers in the same manner as are we. Being willing to collaborate is a sign of strength – not weakness. Rather than having to figure everything out on our own, we can shortcut the process of becoming an expert by joining forces. This is a leverage play and one that should not be overlooked.

Teach it! Teaching others is a terrific way to cement our own knowledge and to learn from others. During the teaching process many questions are asked by the “students” which can be stimulating for the teacher. Mentoring falls in this category as well. When we can explain things to others in a meaningful way and challenge them to think critically; and when it’s clear that they are realizing true value from what we are sharing, we are achieving expert status.

Participate in the discussion! This entails writing articles, blogs and books. It involves attending industry conferences and sitting on panels of – yes, you guessed it – experts! Who does the local or national press contact for information about an industry? If they are calling you, then you are probably regarded as an expert. Take full advantage of this opportunity and become the go-to person for as many newspapers, trade publications and other information sources as possible.

Know the answers! Finally, a real expert knows the answers and is right the vast majority of the time. We should have a deep understanding of the macro and micro elements of our industry and be able to explain how our product or service is capitalizing on these elements. Being able to construct logical fact-based arguments that persuade others is a priceless quality. And it unquestionably demonstrates expertise.

Becoming an expert in our field takes thousands of hours of study and research; is aided by earning professional designations or certifications; experimenting, collaborating and teaching; participating in the discussion and knowing the answers. And being an expert often provides a clear pathway to high levels of success.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 104 – Sliced Tomatoes.

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.

Building an Iconic Entrepreneurial Culture

We entrepreneurs live in a time where differentiation can be the determining factor between success and failure. As such, we are constantly looking for that silver bullet that elevates our product or service above the competition. Yet in our quest for this elusive competitive edge, we encounter a myriad of challenges involving everything under the sun. Often we have people issues – we struggle to find and retain qualified talent, or there may be low performance. Perhaps we endure periods where it just doesn’t seem that we can do anything right for our customers. Bottom line – entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart.

There is a differentiating factor that offers a nearly 100% guarantee for success – but is frequently overlooked by entrepreneurs. This differentiator is an iconic entrepreneurial culture. Well duh, you may be thinking. How could this possibly be overlooked? The reason is the fact that it takes a long time to build an iconic entrepreneurial culture. And we live in a society of instant gratification. The key is to start right now with this process. By taking positive steps every single day, we eventually will realize this objective.

So exactly what does an iconic entrepreneurial culture look like? It starts with a clear vision for the enterprise. Where are we going and what does it look like when we get there? This vision should be inspirational and easy to communicate. Then we must get the right people on the bus. We recruit and hire folks that share our dream and are committed to taking the necessary steps to achieve it. This is where many attempts to build a culture fall flat. We’re in a tight economy and acquiring talent is extremely difficult. Settling for a warm body (because we’re desperate) may actually be detrimental to the culture we are building.

Our team members need well-defined written roles and accountabilities. Without them, chaos ensues and many things fall between the cracks. Team members also need the proper training as well as the resources necessary to accomplish that for which they are responsible. I’ve written many times about our Why – that is, why we do what we do. Simon Sinek has identified the nine Whys – one of which makes each of us tick. When we can match the roles and accountabilities of our team members with their respective Whys, we’re well on our way to keeping them challenged and engaged. Team members want to feel valued and appreciated, so we do this in a genuine and authentic manner whenever possible. We express gratitude for the contributions made by our team and we recognize individuals for their achievements.

Incentive compensation tied to performance can be a strong motivator. Of equal importance is ensuring that each team member understands the importance of his role in the overall march toward reaching the vision. And team members need to be shown a path for their growth. This may involve opportunities for education, mentorship and career advancement.

Developing core values for the organization is another crucial stepping stone along the cultural path. Once established, advocate them and live them every single day. It goes without saying that core values are meaningless unless leaders model them consistently. In our company, we’ve heard from many new hires that the reason they joined was because it was obvious that we actually put our core values into practice.

An iconic entrepreneurial culture nurtures an environment of collaboration. Leaders work to obtain buy-in for decisions involving the team. It’s an environment that encourages experimentation and creativity. We promote the notion of a “laboratory mindset” for mistakes. In other words, when mistakes occur they are analyzed for what can be learned as opposed to being used as a reason to criticize and bludgeon.

An iconic entrepreneurial culture is positive and optimistic. Fear is eliminated and conflict is handled in an open and forthright manner. Team members are honest with each other and avoid triangulation. They celebrate together and cry together. Systems and processes support strategic thinking – but avoid becoming bureaucratic. Staying nimble is the eternal mantra. Finally, the entire team subscribes to a customer-centric ideology that worships at the altar of the Net Promoter Score (NPS).

Creating an iconic entrepreneurial culture is difficult and time consuming . . . but it is possible. And once it has been achieved, it becomes one of the most powerful differentiators there is.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 101 – A Tip From Warren Buffet.

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.

Sabotage?

We’ve all seen the World War II movies where U.S. soldiers crept behind enemy lines and blew up bridges, tunnels and other elements of infrastructure. We hold our breath as our boys used cunning and guile to defeat the Germans at every turn. This was classic sabotage at its finest.

Would you believe that entrepreneurial leaders can sometimes be saboteurs too? Are you wondering how? Consider this. Nathan owns an internet marketing company with 24 employees. He has a couple of up-and-comers on the team. Nathan is a strong, hard-charging Type-A personality and is quite a taskmaster. He seldom expresses his gratitude to his rising stars. Instead, he can be hypercritical at times. Nathan claims that he is simply trying to push his best and brightest to excel. Because of his sense of urgency he tends to issue instructions in a rapid-fire manner. When mistakes are made, Nathan becomes impatient and can even unleash a tirade that is directed in a very personal manner. His colleagues do not want to bring him bad news – it’s not that they don’t want to let him down, but because they fear his wrath and tantrums. On the other hand he can be witty and charming. And his company has achieved enormous success.

By contrast, Amanda started a consumer products research firm while she was in college and has watched it grow over the past five years to 35 employees. Amanda is also a high-achiever and a similar Type-A personality. She sets lofty expectations for her team and they respond by meeting or beating their goals every quarter. While it’s clear that she’s the boss, team members love Amanda’s collaborative style. Even when a mistake is made she remains positive and upbeat while counseling the errant employee. Amanda never berates anyone and is always supportive. She’s no pushover either – if certain employees continue to underperform she will show them the door. During a 360 review, the most common statement made about Amanda is, “I always feel that she values my contribution.”

The difference in leadership styles between Nathan and Amanda is very stark. They are both generating eye-popping results, but their paths are totally divergent. Nathan is a saboteur and is succeeding in spite of his approach . . . for now. But like a Roman candle that pierces the night sky, eventually it flames out and disintegrates. Nathan’s company is always in a state of upheaval. Drama is occurring at every turn. Employee turnover is high and if it weren’t for his two blossoming lieutenants keeping everything together, the whole enterprise would blow up. When the boss constantly undermines his team the implosion clock is ticking.

Strong leadership – the kind demonstrated by Amanda – begins and ends with positive encouragement. A calm sense of urgency replaces the chaos, and team members do not fear for their sanity (or safety!) when a failure is experienced. The basic premise is pretty easy to understand. Are people more motivated to succeed in an upbeat and encouraging environment, or one that is negative and subjects people to personal embarrassment?

The legendary Steve Jobs of Apple fame was an awful boss. Ramon Henson, an instructor of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School wrote this about Jobs in 2011. “It is well-known that Steve Jobs could be arrogant, dictatorial, and mean-spirited.  Despite the observations of some about Mr. Jobs’ arrogant style, I believe that he had at least three qualities that great executive leaders have: a clear vision, a passion for the company and its people, and an ability to inspire trust.  This is what I would consider his leadership character. In fact, Mr. Jobs not only had a vision, he made sure that everyone in the company bought into that vision, and this created a ‘higher purpose’ for the company that really excited Apple employees. Of course, his passion for the company and its products is legendary. And employees trusted Mr. Jobs – not because he founded the company but because he showed time and again his competence in many areas, especially product design and marketing.  And because employees saw – through his behavior – that Mr. Jobs was not driven by his own ego or by some self-interested needs (like the outrageous pay packages of some executives), they trusted him. So if Mr. Jobs was at times arrogant, even nasty, employees viewed these behaviors in the context of these underlying qualities.”

I believe Steve Jobs was an anomaly as a leader. That Apple achieved great results while enduring his leadership style is a testament to this outlier notion. In other words, “don’t try this at home.” The probability of success is exponentially higher when creating an environment of positive encouragement than one of daily sabotage.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 58 – The Really Big Bus.

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.

Stick a Hose In Their Mouth

Question: The other day I was making a purchase and I asked the salesperson about another product sold by one of his competitors. He was very disparaging about this competitor. How should talk about a competitor be handled?

Answer: I have come to the point of believing that only if we have competition will we be better. This is true in business and in life in general. Everyone wants to win but does beating up a competitor when talking to a customer really put us in a winning mode and make us better?

When a salesperson makes derogatory comments about another company or its products that indicates that he or she isn’t confident enough in his or her own company’s product to help the customer buy it. Instead, the salesperson must resort to tearing down the other company and its product. I’ve been in this situation many times as a customer. And I can tell you that my reaction was not positive. In fact it is such a turnoff that I may not even purchase the product that the offending salesperson is trying to sell.

If you are an entrepreneur, how do you feel when you read or hear about one of your competitors landing a big contract or succeeding in some other way? Are you angry or are you happy for them? How do you view your competitors? Are they the “enemy” to be beaten into submission? For me, life is too short to constantly be engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the competition. I choose to see people trying to earn a living or even live a passion. I see people working hard to perfect their product or service. Those who view competition and competitors in an adversarial manner also see the world as a zero-sum game. They define the market as finite and believe that success for a competitor means that they are losing something that otherwise might have been theirs. With few exceptions this is a not a pathway to success.

A different mindset could produce much better results. Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald’s restaurant chain is quoted as saying, “If any of my competitors were drowning, I’d stick a hose in their mouth.” Rather than focus on and react to the competition, it’s much better to focus on the way we serve our customers; develop new and innovative ways to improve our products and services, and improve the way we operate our businesses. We embrace competition to push us to do better and be better. We learn from the things our competitors do better. And we also observe their weaknesses and use this knowledge to avoid the same mistakes.

Healthy competition can be transformed into cooperation and collaboration. When this happens we experience a state of co-opetition. Everyone wins when this state is reached.

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.

garden hose