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 Urgent Team

Allow me to set the scene. We are about to embark upon a major project that could make or break our company. There are a wide range of complexities involving this project and it will require a supreme effort from our entire team to successfully bring it all together. But there’s just one problem. Invariably someone on the team is not as responsive as necessary or doesn’t seem to possess the same sense of urgency as does everyone else. As a result the ball gets dropped and we fail. Alternatively, others on the team step in to pick up the slack which creates resentment and hard feelings. How do we effectively deal with this rogue team member that is at the center of all this?

There are a number of steps that can be taken to stack the deck in our favor when it comes to ensuring responsiveness and urgency. Step one is to develop clear written roles and accountabilities for each member of the team. Considerable thought should be given to this process so that a high level of precision in role definition can be attained. Being as comprehensive as possible in describing a role will produce clarity. Vague and generic verbiage muddles the picture and may lead to confusion later on. As team members we have overall roles and accountabilities. For major projects it’s a good idea to dive even deeper into a separate set of intentions for each of us relative to the specific matter at hand.

Step two involves gaining a commitment from each team member. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to hold a team meeting to reaffirm the vision for the project. For example, suppose we are developing a proposal to win a major piece of business. We assemble the team that will be creating and implementing the proposal and paint the picture of what it looks like when we win (vision). In the meeting we review team member roles and accountabilities and ask each person to make a verbal (and maybe even written) commitment to do their part in this endeavor. It’s critical that this commitment be made among those on the team and not just to the enterprise.

The third step is for the team leader(s) to make an assessment of the capabilities of each team member. The roles and accountabilities have already been established for each position that will participate in the project. Will the individuals who fill those positions be able to perform the tasks assigned to them? And do they have the tools and resources that are needed to prosecute their roles effectively? If it’s determined that a team member isn’t equipped for his or her role – i.e. skills, training or experience – then that person becomes the weak link in the chain. A decision must be made at the outset whether or not to replace that team member with someone else, or be prepared to provide greater than normal support for that individual.

Finally, team members should be encouraged to set their own deadlines so long as they are compatible with the overall project timeline. When a deadline is imposed by others, there’s always the opportunity for someone to claim it to be unrealistic. Accountability is first to one’s self and then to the team. Self-imposed deadlines are congruent with this approach to accountability. As team leaders it’s equally important for us to be aware of all deadlines and check with team members well in advance of them. Then if there’s a chance that a deadline will be missed we can muster additional resources or take other steps to make sure that the train still runs on time.

Instilling responsiveness and a sense of urgency within a team is a process. When we clearly define roles and accountabilities, obtain commitment, assess capabilities and resources, and work with team-member established deadlines, the process should put us in a position to win the prize we are seeking.

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 Trustworthy Entrepreneur

Let’s give credit where credit is due. I recently listened to a podcast by Reid Hoffman– he was the co-founder of LinkedIn and an early board member at PayPal. Hoffman made a profound statement that goes like this. “Trust is consistency over time.” As entrepreneurs one of our biggest hurdles is creating trust – trust with our team, our investors, our bankers, our customers and our prospective customers. Without trust, we will flounder around and never gain traction. And trust is a very fragile thing. It takes a while to build trust, but it can be gone in an instant.

Consistency. We all know what it means. We also know how hard it is to achieve . . . consistently (pun intended). We trust McDonalds because every meal in every restaurant around the world maintains the same standard of quality. Forget whether or not we actually like the food – we know exactly what to expect. We trust products from Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, Netflix, Adidas and Dove because we know exactly what to expect. Our enterprise struggles when our standard of quality is inconsistent, which in turn degrades the trust our customers have for our product or service.

I’d like to take Reid Hoffman’s mantra one step further. Commitment + Accountability leads to Consistency. Commitment is where every member of our team agrees to perform at a level that is necessary to always deliver our product or service at the highest quality possible. It’s critical that we clearly define what this level of quality means. It must be broken down in exquisite detail. Training must be directed to ensuring that each team member fully understands the detail and how to execute on it. And then the team must practice, practice and practice some more until delivery of the product or service is standardized. The bottom line – we can’t commit to something if we don’t understand it or haven’t been shown how to do it.

Next comes the Accountability part of the equation, and here it gets trickier. Once every member of the team has agreed to delivering the expected level of quality for a product or service, how do we make sure that each person lives up to his end of the bargain? Part of our responsibility as an entrepreneurial leader is to develop some quality control systems and processes. This serves as a backstop for the customer to make certain that something substandard doesn’t leak out into the marketplace. Should we have to spend time and money to create this redundancy? Maybe not, but if we really care about the customer we have no choice but to do so. This also becomes a method of accountability. We’re able to spot deficiencies before it’s too late, and we can identify the weak links in our system. This allows us to get to the root of the problem. Is it an issue of training? Is it a misunderstanding? Does someone not have the proper tools or adequate resources? Is it the fact that someone on the team simply doesn’t give a damn about what they are doing? We can take steps to correct all of these obstacles which help to further tighten our commitment.

Our Commitment to deliver a standard level quality of product or service, and the accompanying Accountability gives us a fighting chance to reach the holy grail of Consistency. And it’s this consistency that will build Trust with everyone in our orbit. Team members learn to trust each other. Customers trust our product or service. Our investors and bankers trust us because we are doing what we say we are going to do.

We let our consistency do the talking for us. We’ve all seen marketing that includes phrases like, “most trusted,” “your honest car dealer,” “honest and trustworthy,” and on and on. I’ve always been wary of any business that needs to beat its chest about how honest and trustworthy it is. It somehow feels like they “protesteth” a bit too much. Perhaps they think they need to advertise this way because they don’t actually deliver consistency with their products and services.

Trust truly is consistency over time. And consistency is the product of commitment and accountability.

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 16 – A Punch in the Mouth.

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 Figure It Out

Recently my wife and I attended her high school class reunion. For her sake, I won’t say which one, but let’s just say that it’s been several decades since her high school days. The event was well planned and quite enjoyable. As we were eating dinner at the banquet, I learned that the restaurant originally scheduled to cater the food bailed out just two weeks earlier. I inquired as to how this possibly could have happened and it was explained that apparently a new manager had recently been hired and there may have been other staffing issues. The restaurant is well-known and long-established in the community and it’s shocking that it reneged on its commitment. Fortunately another restaurant was able to step up at the last minute and cater the class reunion.

I understand that things happen. Hiccups occur in the entrepreneurial world. However, it’s times like these where the real entrepreneurs shine. When we make commitments we do whatever it takes to honor them. Sometimes this requires a great deal of creativity. Sometimes we actually lose money. But no matter what, we always honor our commitments. In the case of the original caterer for my wife’s class reunion, I don’t know what prevented them from following through and providing the food for the event. I found it interesting that while the reunion was in full swing, this restaurant was open and serving dinner across the street from the reunion site.

Real entrepreneurs have a “we’ll figure it out” attitude. Our word is our bond and we’ll die trying to deliver what we promise. Since I don’t know the exact circumstances surrounding the failure of the caterer, let’s game out some scenarios. Perhaps the restaurant found itself with an unexpected labor shortage. The management may have felt that when understaffed, it could not deliver on the catering assignment. I happen to know that this restaurant has locations in other towns that aren’t too far away. One entrepreneurial approach might have been to pull staff from another town to make it possible to honor the catering commitment. I realize that this might have cost the restaurant an extra amount of money, but that shouldn’t enter the equation where a commitment is concerned.

A second scenario might have been one where the former manager made the commitment at a price that caused the restaurant to incur a loss. Maybe that’s why there’s a new manager! Regardless, if the commitment was made at the specified price, it should have been honored. A third scenario might have been one where there was a problem in the supply chain. I find this rather implausible because the cancellation occurred approximately two weeks before the event – more than enough time to resolve an issue with a supplier. However, should that have been the case the restaurant could easily have made other arrangements to procure the necessary ingredients even if it meant buying the items at the grocery store.

The point is that a real entrepreneur would just “figure it out.” Sometimes we do things with bubble gum and baling wire. At other times we deliver a result that is a work of art. The main thing is that the job gets done and the customer is thrilled. Welching on a commitment is simply unheard of to a real entrepreneur. In the case of the caterer, they are running a great risk as a result of their actions. I overheard some of my wife’s classmates who were so irritated that there was talk of boycotting the restaurant and writing negative reviews on social media. I’m sure the word will spread throughout the city and other high school classes will avoid using this restaurant for catering their reunions.

There is a caveat to all of this. It’s important to understand that “we’ll just figure it out” is a fine approach for entrepreneurs at the early stages of our ventures. Eventually we need to refine our systems and processes and create redundancy in every area of our operation. It’s not possible to reach a level of scale if “we’ll just figure it out” is our long-term strategy. While it may sound laughable that any entrepreneur would do this over the long haul, I can tell you from personal experience that I’ve seen many, many companies that are in this mode for years.

Real entrepreneurs always honor their commitments. And sometimes this requires them to “just figure it out” through unconventional means.

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 108 – Entrepreneurial Insecurities.

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 Handshake Heard Around the World

Recently we offered a managerial position to a prospective team member. All of the background screening was complete and he accepted the offer. We even had a firm starting date and appreciated the fact that he felt that he needed to give a two week notice to his current employer. A few days before his starting date he let us know that he wouldn’t be coming to work with us after all. It seems that his employer had offered him $12,000 more annually and he was going to stay put. There is so much wrong with this that I don’t know exactly where to start. Of course this isn’t the first time this has happened. And I know that other businesses have encountered the same thing.

From the prospective team member’s standpoint I have a real problem with this individual making a commitment and then reneging. Oh, I’ve heard all sorts of rationalization. “This is just the way of the world today.” Or, “You can’t really blame someone for wanting to simply take care of his family.” And, “This is classic Millennial behavior.” To all of this I say . . . hogwash. Strong relationships are built on commitment. It’s this way in a marriage, in a friendship, in business and certainly between an employer and an employee. Yet, some people see a potential job shift as a way to force their current employer to give them a raise – never mind that they’ve led their prospective employer down the primrose path.

Let’s look at the other side of the equation. By offering more money not to leave, the current employer is effectively saying to its employee, “We’ve been underpaying you all along and we knew it.” How does this reflect on the commitment of the employer? How is it that on one day an employee is worth what he has been paid all along, and the next day he’s suddenly worth $12,000 a year more? Why would the employee want to continue working for a company that does this?

One of our company’s five core values is Commitment. It’s definition – “We hold ourselves accountable and deliver on our promises.” Our rationale – “When we are fully committed, we are reliable and work diligently. Our commitment fosters dedication and loyalty.” We also wrap this core value with individual and organizational actions. From an individual perspective, “I take responsibility for my roles and accountabilities and strive to surpass expectations. I do what I say; I follow through and take ownership for my actions. I contribute constructive input for our company when requested or when needed.” From an organizational perspective, “Our leaders follow through and honor their commitments. Our leaders strive to make decisions keeping in mind the company, team members, customers and stakeholders. Our leaders are dedicated to supporting their team members so they can fulfill their commitments.”

In 1975, I interviewed for several jobs as I was about to graduate from college. I agreed to work for my current company and was immediately contacted by another prospective employer and offered a position that would have paid more. The thought never crossed my mind to even consider the offer because I had already made a commitment to my current firm. That was the way of the world in 1975. Sadly, as a society we’ve lost the meaning of the word Commitment.

For entrepreneurs trying to build a business, probably the most valuable resource we have is people. Without people, it’s virtually impossible to build an organization that provides a product or service to our customers. To attract and retain people we must demonstrate commitment in many forms. Our team members need to see that we are committed to making certain they are paid as promised. They need to know that we as leaders are committed to their well-being; to their growth and development, and to the long-term sustainability of our organizations. Perhaps by modeling commitment on our end, we can attract team members who will value this and become dedicated and loyal over the long haul.

I recommend that every entrepreneur adopt Commitment as a core value. By delivering on it each day, maybe it’s possible that the tide will turn and we can return to the day when our word is our bond.

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 102 – Sabotage?

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 Art of Self-Discipline

I have my parents to thank for my level of discipline. I think perhaps I’m naturally wired for discipline, but there’s no doubt that the conscripted nature of their approach was very influential. As a young boy, every morning for nine years, I would get up and practice the piano at 5:30 AM on weekdays. I practiced the clarinet every weekday as well. I (dutifully) mowed the lawn, shoveled the snow, cleaned up the dog poop in the backyard, did my homework and practiced basketball. There was no choice. It was either get with the program or I’m sure there would have been even more horrific chores for me to do around the house. So I complied – I didn’t want to find out what the consequences would have been otherwise. So, today, whether it’s diet, exercise, investments or daily routines, I’m blessed with more than enough discipline. But I’m well aware that I may not be normal in this respect.

Discipline is a critical ingredient to an entrepreneur’s recipe for success. Without it we lose the “stick-to-itness” that is needed to follow through on a project or focus on a long-term strategy. The beneficial implementation of various systems and processes is dependent upon a level of discipline. It’s obvious to every adult that adopting a disciplined approach to multiple facets of our lives is essential.

So what do we do if we are less inclined in the discipline department? First, we decide where to pick our battles. I’m a neat freak – my wife, not so much. My shoes are organized in cubbies in my closet and every time I take off a pair they go directly into the cubby in which they belong. My wife’s shoes may be on the floor in front of the love seat where she sits in our den. In fact there may be more than one pair there. She has cubbies in her closet too, but they are packed full and she has dozens of pairs strewn about haphazardly on the closet floor. Naturally this used to bug me being the ultra-disciplined obsessive compulsive individual that I am. But I’ve learned that it’s not that big of a deal. And I’ve actually taken a page from her playbook and decided that there are some things on which I can lighten up in my daily routine. The point is that we don’t have to be disciplined about everything. Thus, we give ourselves permission to be less so with the things that don’t really matter.

Next, we identify those areas where we definitely need to be more disciplined. This applies to both our personal and professional lives. This starts with envisioning what it looks like when we get there. In other words, we paint the grand picture of success for whatever endeavor we are pursuing. Let’s take an easy example – weight loss. We see in our mind’s eye what we look like when we are 25 pounds lighter. We visualize a new wardrobe, how much easier it is to climb stairs, how wonderful the compliments are from our friends and overall how much healthier and vibrant we are. This visualization exercise needs to be performed daily until we have the desire to fulfill it. This process is necessary to build commitment. Without commitment discipline may be fleeting – look at gym attendance in February (or even half way through January).

Once we visualize our outcome and become fully committed, we next determine the steps that must be taken to achieve our outcome. Perhaps we want to become more disciplined about being aware of current affairs in our industry. Just jumping in and starting to read more trade publications, doesn’t ensure that we’ll have the discipline to continue this on a long-term basis. Instead we decide which information channels will be most productive. We determine a specific time of day we want to set aside for this initiative, and we also pick the environment most conducive to making this happen. In my case, it would be the easy chair in my den at home between the hours of 7:00 and 8:00 PM. I may read a couple of print and numerous online publications that are proven to have the content I’m seeking. There are some endeavors requiring discipline that need to be broken into bite-sized pieces or require a build-up of some sort. I walk about 10 to 12 miles each day but I didn’t start out that way. My initial Fitbit goal was 10,000 steps. Then it became 20,000 and now it’s 30,000.

Developing self-discipline is a process that starts with identifying what actually requires such discipline, followed by a visualization of the outcome we desire which builds to a commitment to follow-through. Then we map out the steps we’ll be taking – but always, always we keep visualizing our end goal.

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 86 – Alligator Food

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.

Bears in Trash Bins

Here are several scenarios. Tell me what’s missing. A manufacturing operation is experiencing an alarming increase in the number of product rejections. A child chronically fails to turn in his homework assignments. Monthly financial reports for a company seem to always be delivered at least two weeks late and sometimes more. Customer service ratings for a particular business are abysmally low. Bears are constantly getting into trash bins in a neighborhood and making an incredible mess.

So what is it? What’s missing? It’s a concept that can sometimes be elusive in entrepreneurial environments and often in our personal lives as well. It’s called . . . accountability. Accountability has four basic components – understanding, commitment, responsibility and consequences.

A failure to understand what is expected can obviously lead to an overall failure in whatever operation is being performed. The manufacturing rejects could very well have been caused by a machine operator not understanding a critical step in his or her process. It’s pretty hard to hold this person accountable if there was a lack of training to ensure a full understanding of the process.

Without commitment full accountability is impossible. The child must not only understand how important it is to submit his homework but he must also be committed to the notion as well. If he refuses to commit to turn in his work, then he will refrain doing so. While it’s true we can hold him accountable for his actions, it’s unlikely that we’ll achieve the desired result.

The path to accountability involves a willingness to take responsibility. “It’s mine (or ours) to do” becomes the mantra. In unhealthy organizations there may be a great deal of finger pointing. “It’s the fault of Marketing.” “No, Sales screwed up!” No one seems willing to step up and claim whatever “it” is. Taking responsibility is a sign of integrity and sacrifice, especially if things go wrong.

Finally there are consequences. We may think of consequences in a negative sense but of course consequences can also be positive. The accountant who finally figures out how to deliver the financial reports on time may benefit from positive consequences in the form of a bonus. On the other hand, the customer service department that gets consistently poor ratings might suffer the consequences of being terminated. It’s important to note that for negative consequences to be administered fairly, the individual(s) in question must have a clear understanding of what they are supposed to do. One of the most common mistakes that is made in the accountability process is firing someone for their failures that are really the result of their not clearly understanding how to perform their role.

So let’s put it all together in a positive scenario. Mike and Susan are a two-person team employed by Newco, a tech start-up. For the first week after they are hired they undergo intensive training that provides them with the knowledge and understanding they need to undertake the functions assigned to them. The second week they work with “buddies” that scrutinize their work and ensure the finished product meets quality standards.

At the beginning of the third week the company founder sits down with Mike and Susan and asks them a number of questions about the work they are doing. He inquires as to whether or not they are clear on what they are supposed to do and how to do it. When they answer affirmatively, the founder asks if they are fully committed to do their part as a team in delivering a flawless product to the customer. Mike and Susan now have understanding and commitment.

One day a customer complained that two of the units she had purchased were defective. Upon further investigation Mike realized that he had missed a step in the production process. He wrote a note to the customer offering his apology and made sure the founder knew that the error was totally his and not Susan’s fault. Thus, he took responsibility.

Over the course of a year, Mike and Susan performed in exemplary fashion. They were accountable to each other, to their company and to their customers. As a result they were both promoted to supervisory positions and received generous raises. All in all the consequences were positive.

When we have understanding, commitment, responsibility and consequences we have full accountability. And that’s how we keep the bears out of the trash bins.

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 35 – Tick Tock.

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.

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