The Iconic Culture Creating Entrepreneur

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 of 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 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 steppingstone 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 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.

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 Mobbed-Up Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs should do everything possible to avoid the Mob. If you are thinking the Mafia or La Cosa Nostra, that’s not what this is about. Our society is currently experiencing a phenomenon that I call the Mob Mentality. And there’s nothing good in it for us. If you are wondering, there are examples abound. The #MeToo movement certainly raises legitimate concerns about sexual harassment, but there are many people who are being convicted by the Mob without any opportunity to offer a defense. The same is happening with Mob convictions for racism, homophobia, and a score of other real or perceived slights. And more recently, the Mob has become focused on guns and is convicting companies that might have some association with the National Rifle Association.

I don’t get into political discussions in this blog. This is about entrepreneurship and what we can do to become better entrepreneurs. But it’s hard to avoid becoming ensnared by the Mob when its fevered pitch ratchets out of control and overwhelms us with political correctness and hyperbole. I listen to a podcast regularly about start-ups and angel investing. The host, who makes his political proclivities known every chance he gets, asked a founder he was interviewing, whether he would accept funding from a certain well-known venture capitalist that has political leanings that are out of favor with the Silicon Valley crowd. And the host and his guest pondered this question, and it became apparent that there is actually a Mob Mentality that would prevent some founders from accepting funding from this VC. Incredible!

Successful entrepreneurships are built on diversity of thought and culture. The Mob advocates monolithic thought. Rather than engaging in civil discourse, the Mob will attempt to intimidate an entrepreneur through boycotts, adverse posts on social media and via other means. This is dangerous territory for us to be in. Facts be damned, the Mob is always in search of an enemy to destroy. If we are anywhere close by, we run the risk of being swept up in the hysteria of the moment.

So, how are we supposed to avoid the Mob? If we don’t have well-thought Core Values and a healthy, positive Culture, the Mob may be waiting for us right around the corner. Why is this important? Because focusing on Core Values and Culture will help our organization and its team members move down the right path. Entrepreneurial endeavors that are drifting along without an intentional culture are more prone to make the kind of mistakes on which the Mob will pounce. Why? Because the guideposts provided by Core Values are missing. One of the five Core Values for our firm is that of Team Member Fulfillment. We work hard to evaluate decisions that we make as a company and as individual team members and align them with the concept of a positive workplace experience. In so doing, it’s clear to everyone that there’s no place in Team Member Fulfillment for sexual harassment. Obviously, someone who feels harassed or threatened can’t feel fulfilled. Does this guarantee that it won’t happen – of course not. But we believe we’ve decreased the chances because of our cultural development.

Another way to avoid the Mob is to decline to participate. The Mob Mentality is mostly fueled by emotion. Entrepreneurs who choose to enter this arena are playing with fire. Remember as kids when we wanted to do something and used the emotional (and fact-less) argument, “everybody is doing it?” I certainly did, but fortunately my parents weren’t buying it. There were several things that had I been allowed to participate, would have turned out badly for me. Just keep in mind that if you decide to jump on the Mob bandwagon, your team members and your customers may be watching. And the consequences could be detrimental to your business.

Finally, avoiding the Mob requires active leadership. Not only must we model our Core Values, but we should take the opportunity to lead our team away from or around the crowd. We should not make decisions simply to please or placate the Mob. Instead, we do the right thing for our enterprise and the team members that support it. In this day and age, we can’t hide from our leadership responsibilities, or the Mob will fill the void. Unfortunately, I’ve seen several business leaders that think they are protecting their companies from the Mob by siding with it. In most cases, this has simply caused more controversy and chaos. Strong, active leaders will chart a proper and measured course that avoids being trampled by the herd.

The Mob Mentality in our society is a dangerous thing. Entrepreneurs can avoid the Mob by adopting well-defined Core Values, creating a strong, positive Culture, declining to participate in Mob initiatives and demonstrating positive, active leadership.  

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 Remote Entrepreneur

OK – this is an interesting and somewhat touchy subject. I’m going to tackle it anyway. There is a lot of buzz right now about remote work. During COVID-19, we learned that it’s possible for many people to work from home (or elsewhere) and be reasonably productive. In some instances, employees were more productive than when they were at their place of employment – and there are other examples of where this was not the case. Now that society is gradually returning to a state of normalcy there is much discussion about employees who want to continue working remotely. Many large companies are reducing their office footprint and even offering remote work as a perk. I have some concerns about this trend.

We have had a rather unique experience with remote work over the past 50+ years. Our organization has multiple business units that are engaged in the development, acquisition, and management of apartment communities – an operation that now spans 20 states and growing. Development Directors and Development Managers are scattered across different locations by design. They need to be on the ground in the regions where they are researching and identifying development sites. Ditto for Regional Managers in our property management unit. Our headquarters team works from our corporate office though there are a handful of team members who work in a hybrid fashion due to the nature of their positions. Now, here’s where it gets more challenging. At any given time, we have 90 to 100 apartment communities that we manage throughout the country. These properties could be small with only two team members, or they could be very large with as many as 12 to 14 team members. They are all “remote” relative to our headquarters operations.

Several years ago, we became much more intentional about our culture and have worked tirelessly to build an environment where we empower people to thrive. This entails a set of core values, collaboration, celebrating success, and holding each other accountable. The corporate office culture is very strong and is usually hitting on all cylinders. Getting a two-person team in Kentucky or Wisconsin to integrate with our overall corporate culture has been a tougher mountain to climb. Our properties typically have developed their own cultures which we support and attempt to mirror with the overall culture. Video conferencing is helpful but not the end all – and we have been video conferencing for many years – long before COVID. We do everything we can to weave our culture throughout the various business units and properties, but some days it’s two steps forward and three steps back.

This brings me to the issue at hand and my biggest concern about remote work. How do companies maintain their culture (assuming they have an intentional and positive culture in the first place) when many if not all their employees are working remotely? I fully understand the desire by many who wish to work from home. There are childcare issues, skyrocketing gas prices, the prohibitive cost of living in some parts of the country, long commutes, etc. And yet, the question still remains – how does a company build a strong culture when a team is not physically together?

We have recently had a few members of our team depart because they went to companies that offered remote work (and a significant boost in pay). I am very concerned for them. They met each other in the first place because they physically were together in our corporate office. Working remotely, how are they going to differentiate themselves going forward? How will they fare over the long haul without the kind of social interaction they would experience in an office? When the day comes that their company needs to layoff employees will they be more vulnerable because they are essentially faceless cogs in the corporate wheel? And how will they stand out to gain future promotions in this faceless environment they have chosen?

Remote work is not a panacea from the perspective of both employer and employee. A company that chooses to go in this direction needs to have a serious plan in place to maintain and strengthen its culture in this new dimension. Most companies are simply reacting to the marketplace rather than adapting in a thoughtful way that will have long-term benefits for all parties. Entrepreneurs will be well served to be very cautious and strategic as they create remote-work policies.

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 “Lift Up” Entrepreneur

The news lately has been grim in many respects. So many headlines are focused on bad things people are doing. There were sexual assault scandals, charges of racism, political mudslinging, competitive misdeeds, and a host of other negative events. It seems like many of our citizens were committed to tearing down their fellow man. But to what end? How has this made the world a better place?

Entrepreneurs thrive on positive energy – we all do. Rather than use the hand to slap, how about we use it to lift up? Rather than pick others apart why don’t we pat them on the back. And rather than be hypercritical of everything about everyone, let’s intentionally look for the good. It goes without saying that this applies to our personal and professional lives alike.

If this sounds a bit too woo-woo, consider this. When are we most productive? When we are in conflict or in harmony? When are we most creative? And when are we the happiest and most fulfilled? I doubt anyone can honestly say that negativity has paved the path to their success. While our positive approach improves the wellbeing of others, guess what? It’s even more for our own benefit.

Here’s a simple test. Do you hear your friends, family and colleagues say more positive things about others, or more negative things? Recently I’ve listened to others (and myself) in this regard, and have noticed that often, the negative conversation outweighs the positive – that is, unless I move it in the other direction. When I intentionally find something good to say to someone or about someone else, it’s quite interesting to watch where the conversation goes. It takes a decided turn to the positive. Perhaps it’s contagious, or maybe it just needs a kick start. What’s fascinating is to see how easy it is move others in a positive direction by just being positive myself.

This practice takes no effort other than authenticity and a genuine desire to see the good in others. When we pay a compliment to a team member, a spouse, or a child, it’s obvious how it makes them feel. But how does it make us feel? Perhaps there’s a bit of an afterglow for us that creates a lingering positive mindset. A routine I have developed is to walk through our office several times a day and speak to people. I’m looking for ways to build people up rather than tear them down. This occurs by engaging in short conversations, offering a word or encouragement here or there and smiling – always smiling. The process is energizing for me and stokes my innovation and creativity. And members of my team seem to take the cue – we hear them saying nice things about each other and pitching in to help one another.

I firmly believe that an organization (or a family) with a strongly positive culture will do great things. An uplifting spirit will help us through tough times and give us the momentum we need to climb the metaphorical mountains that need climbing. If members of our team are always looking over their shoulder and wondering when they are going to be criticized, a negative mindset ensues. If there is backstabbing, a constant rumor mill, cliques or a general air of indifference, the culture will reflect same.

Entrepreneurial leaders can be the difference maker when it comes to a positive or negative culture. The behavior we model in this respect will be noticed by everyone. If we are consistent about it, we may even help shift the mindset of others to entrench a positive culture that is permanent and enduring. Valuing the contribution of our team members and looking for every way possible to assist them is what can help us become the difference maker.

Making a commitment to continually see the good in others is healthy for our organization. The positive energy that it creates not only lifts everyone else but also elevates us to an even greater state of being.

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 Appreciative Entrepreneur

Robin goes to work every day at the consumer products company where she has been employed for the past two years. She faithfully performs her roles and accountabilities and has received relatively high marks from her supervisor. In fact, she has never taken a sick day and is proud of the fact that she’s never missed a day of work other than scheduled holidays and vacations. But recently, Robin has begun to feel more and more like she’s on a hamster wheel. She believes her compensation is relatively fair and she likes what she does. However, she often wonders about what she might be missing at another firm.

Robin is feeling unappreciated and undervalued. No one has been disrespectful or mean to her, so that’s not the problem. More than anything no one outside of her operating unit seems to really care whether she’s part of the team or not. It’s this level of apathy that’s eating at her. She sees the “big boss” almost every day, but he’s never once spoken to her. She rationalizes this by acknowledging that there are over 1,000 employees in the company and it’s impossible for him to know everyone. Still, her accomplishments are seemingly unnoticed and taken for granted.

The scenario just described is repeated countless times every single day across a wide spectrum of companies – large and small. There are multiple studies showing that feeling valued is more important to many people than what they are paid. And this is not a problem that is easily solved with a large company event, a cruise or other significant activity. No, our team members need to feel valued on a regular and ongoing basis.

Leaders need to understand that helping others to feel appreciated and valued is one of the most important functions we can perform. It requires a genuine and authentic mindset that we are here to serve. Yes, you read that correctly. We are servant-leaders. The objective is to look for every way we can to make others feel important and fulfilled. It’s not a mindset that we can turn on and off depending upon who we encounter. We can start creating this mindset by trying to find something good and positive about every situation and everyone. When we are served in a restaurant, we can call the server by name and tell him or her what great service was provided. In public spaces there are always people cleaning the floors or polishing the glass. We can compliment them on how they are creating a sparkling appearance.

We continue to practice our appreciative mindset at our workplace. We make certain to greet everyone we walk by and call them by name. We go out of our way to acknowledge the efforts of others and thank them for their contribution. As leaders, it’s our job to encourage other leaders to create a culture of gratitude.   

An initiative we launched several years ago involves sending a letter to each of our team members on their work anniversary. It’s form letter that changes annually and is signed by me as the CEO. But we’ve taken it a step further. A spreadsheet is created onto which is recorded comments about each team member’s accomplishments provided by his or her supervisor. Toward the bottom of the letter, I handwrite a personal note – several sentences – citing these individual accomplishments and thanking the team member for being a part of the team. I write several hundred of these each year and can tell you that it’s one of the high points of my month. I also call team members when I hear about exceptional performance and express my appreciation for their service.

It’s equally important for our team to feel as though their input is needed. Mandates from on high are sometimes necessary, but soliciting feedback from team members and involving them in the decision-making process whenever possible promotes buy-in. And we need to make sure when people speak that we listen and act accordingly. There are many great ideas and practical solutions that can be accessed from such a collaborative approach.

Acknowledging value and showing respect starts at the top of an organization. If the executive leadership doesn’t incorporate this as part of the cultural fabric, it’s not likely that it will be a priority for others either. If the “big boss” would simply say hello to Robin and show a little interest in her and what she does, it’s unlikely that she would feel the way she does.

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 Marauding Capitalist Entrepreneur

There have been some interesting developments in recent times on the subject of capitalism. An angry anti-capitalism movement is in full bloom in the U.S. and around the world. The classic definition of capitalism from Merriam-Webster is, “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.” And what do the anti-capitalists want? They are pursuing a moneyless society or some other economic system such as socialism or communism. How have we arrived at this point?

There has always been a certain element of society that voices opposition to capitalism. Lately the voices seem to have grown louder and perhaps greater in number. I believe that this may be due in part to some bad behavior on the part of a few marauding capitalists. What is a “marauding capitalist?” Here are some examples. The financial services company, Wells Fargo, fraudulently created more than two million phony bank accounts which generated fees for the bank and helped push sales figures for thousands of employees (along with their bonuses). Then there was the scandal involving the EpiPen. The cost to Mylan, the pharmaceutical company producing the EpiPen is $30, and yet the consumer was being charged $600. And finally, there’s the case of Martin Shkreli, formerly CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who jacked up the price of the HIV drug Daraprim from $13.50 per tablet to over $700.

Some of these actions were illegal. In all cases they were immoral. When this sort of behavior is perpetrated, it gives capitalism a bad reputation. It’s not hard to see how the term “marauding capitalists” came about. Society generally disapproves of those who scheme and those who take unfair advantage of others. Is it any surprise that resentment has built to the point that the anti-capitalists are coming out of the woodwork?

What can we do to inoculate ourselves from becoming a “marauding capitalist?” It all starts with a foundation of Core Values. For a good part of my career, I heard about companies with Core Values, but in most cases, they were “lip serviced.” They were only for window dressing and no one paid any attention to them. Several years ago, we decided to become serious about developing our culture and did so by developing meaningful Core Values. Since then, we’ve focused on them relentlessly and celebrated the way they are lived by members of our team. Our Core Values include Commitment, Integrity, Customer Fulfillment, Team Member Fulfillment and Community Impact. By maintaining focus on delivering on our Core Values, we have avoided the kind of actions that might be regarded as unacceptable or offensive.

With well-thought Core Values and a commitment to living them every day, we entrepreneurs don’t have to worry about doing things that are immoral or illegal. But we’re not done yet. The “living them every day” part is critical and the most difficult. This is where Culture comes into play. Every organization has a Culture – intentional or unintentional. When the Culture is positive and aligned with the Core Values, it reduces the likelihood for moving off the straight and narrow. If someone on the team proposes an initiative that is contradictory to the Core Values, someone else will call this into accountability. A healthy Culture can become a self-policing mechanism that stops “marauding capitalism” in its tracks. Most importantly, the top leaders of an organization must embrace the Core Values and model them every single day. This sends the message that the company has not simply adopted Core Values to be politically correct.

There are plenty of companies that are doing it right. Panera Bread, Atmos Energy, Kohl’s, Western Union, Marathon Petroleum, Quest Diagnostics, Union Pacific and Sempra Energy, are just a few that are admired for their trustworthiness. Unfortunately, only takes a few bad actors to poison the well for capitalism overall.

We can all do our part to prevent marauding capitalism from becoming mainstream, for it invites more government regulation and gives a platform to those who want to destroy capitalism outright. When our operating principles are congruent with our Core Values, we will be successful in this effort.

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 Entrepreneur’s Winning Culture

Southwest Airlines has been in business since 1967 and has recorded 47 consecutive years of profitability. The company flies 737 Boeing 737 aircraft with 380 more on order. Southwest pioneered low-cost air travel and has grown to be one of the largest airlines in the world. United Airlines launched Ted, its low-cost brand in 2004 with 56 Airbus 320 aircraft. It folded operations in 2008. Delta Airlines launched Song, its low-cost brand in 2003 with 47 Boeing 757 aircraft. It folded operations in 2006.

How is it that two enormous legacy air carriers failed to challenge Southwest with similar low-cost service? Just like Southwest, they flew point-to-point routes. They used a single type of aircraft, just like Southwest. And they charged low fares, just like Southwest. What’s more, they had massive financial backing from well-established parent companies. All three companies were playing a commodity game. So why did Southwest win the game?

There was one aspect that neither Ted nor Song could replicate. Southwest had developed a unique culture that was friendly, whimsical, and borderline radical at times. Customers were attracted to this culture. Southwest passengers enjoyed corny songs sung by flight attendants and the overall attitude of the Southwest team. Ted and Song were simply offshoots of United and Delta and reflected their respective cultures. It’s true that there are other low-cost airlines that are profitable today, but they haven’t made serious inroads into Southwest’s market share or customer base.

What’s fascinating about all of this is how a Winning Culture can be so elusive. I’ve said many times that I’m not particularly concerned about sharing my playbook with my competitors. It’s not the design of the plays that necessarily wins the game. It’s how well those plays are executed that makes the difference. There are a multitude of sports metaphors in this respect. Think of all the professional football teams that are stocked with amazing athletes possessing world-class talent. And every single team has a playbook full of intricately designed plays for the offense and the defense. Yet, a dropped pass here and a missed block there can be the difference in whether a team wins the Super Bowl or watches it at home on TV.

What exactly is a Winning Culture? As entrepreneurs, it is something we may not think much about, but it can be the difference between success and failure. Far too often, entrepreneurs may not pay enough attention to creating and nurturing a Winning Culture, opting instead to focus more exclusively on operations and metrics. Southwest infuses the following into every employee it hires:

  • A warrior spirit.
  • A servant’s heart.
  • A fun-“luving” attitude (Southwest’s stock ticker symbol is LUV).

At Southwest, the warrior spirit is “being fearless in terms of delivering the product,” according to Ginger Hardage, the now-retired chief communications officer. The servant’s heart is based upon the Golden Rule and the need to treat everyone with respect. It’s obvious what the “fun-luving attitude” is all about. Southwest looks to hire people who don’t take themselves too seriously and always have a smile on their face. There’s no question that Southwest pays a great deal of attention to operations and metrics, but its cultural foundation is rooted in these three values.

When a company stops winning and starts losing, the first place to look is to see if it has strayed from its Winning Culture. If the culture’s not right, the operations may be off kilter and the metrics will look bad. I believe that we must fix the culture first and then make the technical adjustments from there. And one more cogent point needs to be made. A Winning Culture is different than just plain culture. An organization may have a culture that has been intentionally cultivated but doesn’t necessarily lead to winning. To win, we must be extraordinarily positive about it. Our entire team must be convinced that we are going to win, and they must completely embrace the notion.

A Winning Culture is not replicable. It is unique to each company or organization and must be developed organically. It enables us to execute our playbook effectively in ways that our competition can’t.

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 Value Proposition Entrepreneur

Several days ago, I was talking with an entrepreneur about his company. For many years, he had achieved a reasonable level of success with the manufacture and sale of a particular product. But more recently his sales had trailed off and he was becoming worried. He made very telling statement, “the product is the same as it has been for the past 15 years – I don’t understand why people aren’t buying it in the quantities they once did.” Framed in this manner, the problem is obvious. But how often do we march on oblivious to the changes that are occurring around us?

I asked the entrepreneur to explain his value proposition, a question that was followed by silence. He admitted that he really had not thought about it for quite some time (actually it had been several years). The bottom line was that his customers no longer saw the value in his product the same way as they had in the past. Tastes change. Competition is fierce. Customers can sometimes feel like they are being taken for granted. Unless we make an effort to continually understand why our customers buy our products or services, we aren’t in a position to make the tiny tweaks or major overhauls that are necessary to maintain our winning streak.

Conventional wisdom says that a value proposition is a promise of value to be delivered. Obviously, there is a lot more to it. A restaurant where we eat sometimes seems to be having a bit of a struggle with its value proposition. I suppose that the proprietor could say to me the customer, “You pay me money and I’ll cook your dinner.” Technically that is a value proposition – but a pretty bad one. The website for this restaurant references “a special dining experience.” There are some other superlatives in the “About” section of the website, but nothing that would really grab you. There are a lot of little things about this place that demonstrate a lack of focus on a strong value proposition. The prime rib is fatty and gristly; the wait staff is not trained to make sure that a diner’s glass of tea or water is always full – even if it is not their assigned table; likewise, empty plates are not cleared by the bus staff while guests are at the table (only by the primary server), and finally, service can be a bit slow at times.

A value proposition needs to reflect the culture of the organization. In the case of the restaurant previously mentioned, there does not seem to be a culture of attention to detail. This restaurant probably gets 95% of the dining experience right but does not seem to care enough to nail that last 5%. If I owned the restaurant, I would re-tool the culture and become fastidious about the little things. My ultimate value proposition would be something like this: “Most restaurants can cook you a meal. We focus on that last 5% to make your dining experience 100% perfect.” Then I would follow that with a further explanation – “your drink glass will never be empty; we select only the highest quality beef, pork, poultry and fish; our wait staff will always be looking for ways to serve you – regardless of whether or not it’s their assigned table.” Not only does this clearly state what value we will be delivering, but it also defines the points of differentiation with competing venues.

A good value proposition is clear, inspiring, and differentiating. To avoid becoming irrelevant, entrepreneurs must continually review and refine their value propositions.

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 Collaborative Entrepreneur

Nike’s corporate tag line is “Just Do It.” And that could be the tag line for many companies of all sizes. Leaders at all levels send the message of “Just Do It” to their “charges.” This notion boils down to a command and control style of management. And I probably do not need to point out how poorly this approach works with today’s Millennial workforce. We Boomers grew up in this environment and may tend to continue its practice. Perhaps it is time for something different.

I know that many entrepreneurs agree in principle with a more collaborative style of leadership. Yet, the language that is used may belie this agreement. Examine the following statement that rolls up many of the words used into a massive contradiction with collaboration. Mr. Smith is a senior executive with the ABC Company and he’s describing a recent business win for his company.

My employees really came through with this project. I have a hundred people working under me and every one of them did their jobs like they were supposed to. I set their goals and they achieved them. I’ve been focused on this opportunity for a long time. I love winning this way!”

At first blush Mr. Smith seems to be giving credit for the win to others. But the way he says it indicates that he is not yet a convert to a more enlightened style of leadership. Note the highlighted words. Clearly, he is in charge here and other people have done his bidding.

Entrepreneurs can change this narrative. When we are comfortable in our own skin, we are easily able to eliminate the unhealthy aspects of our ego from our interactions with others. It is often the case that having to take the credit for an accomplishment or reinforcing the fact that we were “at the top of the food chain” is a result of our own lack of confidence or some other insecurity. With our new level of comfort, we relax, smile, and become totally humble.

Here is another version of the previous statement. Mr. Doe is a senior executive with XYZ, Inc. and is celebrating a recent success.

“The XYZ team is amazing! They worked together to establish the goal and drew upon our Core Values to develop a winning strategy. We are so appreciative of each and every one of the hundred team members who worked tirelessly on this project for more than a year. Their commitment, dedication and creativity are the reasons for our success.”

Sounds a little different doesn’t it? There is not a single mention of the words “I,” “me” or “my.” The word “employee” has been replaced with “team member.” Mr. Doe simply delivers the message without allowing his ego to enter the picture. Clearly, Mr. Doe’s team members work “with” him – not “under” him. I have written before about how we need to be intentional about modifying our vernacular away from “I,” “me,” and “my,” and changing to “we,” “us,” and “our.”  

Collaborative leadership is not decision making by committee – as a leader we still make the ultimate critical decisions. Collaborative leadership is about seeking out team members and listening to their thoughts and ideas. It is valuing others as human beings and the contribution they make to the enterprise. It is about having empathy and creating a culture of respect. And it is about using the words we say as a reflection of all these factors.

When we think about what we write and say we can ask ourselves this simple question – “Do my words focus the spotlight on me or on others?” Doing so helps us move away from the old command and control approach of the past.

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 Entrepreneur’s Three-Legged Stool

We entrepreneurs have no shortage of books and other resource materials at our disposal to understand how to win in today’s environment. We are barraged with a multitude of tips, tactics, strategies, and a host of other concepts. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone insists theirs is the right way. Ask any coach or consultant and undoubtedly each will have their own secret sauce. I have no issue with any of this and believe that this diversity of ideas is healthy for entrepreneurship as a whole. Fortunately, no one individual has it all figured out . . . so we continue to seek. As one of the “seekers” I might as well add my thoughts to the mix.

My approach involves a three-legged stool, and it is a very simple calculus. The first leg is that of Culture. For most of my career I was not very focused on Culture and we certainly didn’t do much to promote it. Our Culture just kind of happened in a laissez-faire manner. Oh sure, we had a company picnic every now and then as well as a Christmas party; and from time-to-time we would undertake a community service project. But for the most part it was nose-to-the-grindstone – chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out. However, I have learned a lot over the past few years, and I am now drinking the Culture Kool-Aid – lots of it. Why? Because I have found that Core Values matter. Not just to the company but to each member of our team. And we really live our Core Values every single day. As a result, we now have a team of people who have a common alignment and purpose. We are able to connect with Millennials and Boomers alike and productivity has markedly increased. While Culture is more than just Core Values, they serve as the foundation for a Culture.

The second leg of the stool is Product. With the strengthening of our Culture, we have become more creative and innovative with respect to the products and services we provide. The positive environment that has emerged in our companies has enabled us to shine a spotlight on our Product set. We are constantly making tweaks every chance we get to differentiate from our competition that which we offer. “How is it different?” has become our mantra. We have become much more targeted with our marketing and sales effort in a manner that complements our Product refinement. A clear focus on Product has been the impetus for a much more strategic approach to decisions that we make as opposed to the small-ball tactics that we used to deploy.

Finally, the third leg of the stool is Customer. Many companies pay lip service to their customers. Everyone recognizes that without customers we do not stay in business very long. But to succeed entrepreneurs must go far beyond basic customer service. We must do the deep dive into understanding what makes the Customer tick. It is more than just needs and wants . . . it is also a more comprehensive understanding of buying patterns and lifestyles. It is about anticipating what the Customer will value. Thus, the value proposition becomes the Holy Grail. How does the customer experience attain complete and total fulfillment?

Maybe I have oversimplified this, but everything else seems incidental beyond Culture, Product and Customer. Without a strong Culture how can we possibly create a great Product and take care of the Customer? Without a great Product, our Culture begins to crack as team members become demoralized and the Customer eventually suffers. And yes, without the Customer, there is no point in a Culture or a Product. 

Culture, Product and Customer. A three-legged stool that looks simple but is strong enough to support a long winning streak for us 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.