Is It Really a Struggle?

How many times have you heard that entrepreneurship is a struggle? Heck, we’ve all heard how life in general can be a struggle. But is it really? I think it’s worth exploring the notion of “struggling.” Various definitions of the word “struggle” reference adversaries, opposing forces, bodily effort, fight, conflict or contest. I’m just not feeling it.

Let’s paint a picture. Three years ago, Entrepreneur Ed launched his new enterprise. He has encountered many interesting issues along the way. There have been untimely resignations of key team members; nail-biting moments when it was questionable whether he would make payroll; a patent infringement lawsuit; shortages of raw materials that were critical in producing Ed’s product; brutal competition resulting in a price war; cancellation of a liability insurance policy, and the loss of a key customer. Many might say that the last three years have been a “struggle” for Entrepreneur Ed, after all, it appears that he has faced a great deal of adversity. But Ed doesn’t see it that way.

Here is Ed’s perspective. What others see as negative experiences Ed sees as puzzles to solve. Challenging – sure! But Ed believes that what doesn’t kill him will make him stronger and smarter. The utopian view would have us sail along on calm seas growing our businesses from 8 to 5, then going home to play with the kids and spend weekends at the beach. Uh, sorry, it doesn’t work that way. What matters most is the mindset we have as we move through the course of each day. Do we feel like we’re on a perpetual treadmill, grinding away and being attacked from all sides? Do we wonder when the proverbial “other shoe” is going to drop? Perhaps we have become totally overwhelmed to the point of depression. It doesn’t have to be.

Here’s the antidote to the “struggle.” We know we’ve signed on for an adventure – both in the entrepreneurial world and for life in general. That adventure is going to be whatever we make it. If we are fearful and expect disaster . . . we’re likely to find ourselves with a front row seat on the deck of the Titanic as it slowly sinks into the North Atlantic. However, every challenge does not need to end in catastrophe.

We have been rapidly scaling our companies for the past few years. There have been many moments when someone looking in from the outside might believe we were seconds from colliding with a massive iceberg (sorry, I can’t seem to shake out of the Titanic metaphor). I have never believed for a moment that we were on the wrong course. I’ve seen each challenge as a positive opportunity for creativity and growth. And guess what? It’s working! Every time we think we’re flirting with disaster we seem to pull a rabbit out of a hat – except there’s really nothing magical about it at all. Instead, we have a well-thought plan and we have an extremely positive mindset. We know there will be detours along the way. Sometimes we’ll have to backtrack to find the trail, but we are never lost, and we are always focused on our vision.

As I write this, it’s worth noting that I’ve been with the same company and on the same quest for 44 years. I can now look back and realize how incredible the ride has been. Did it ever seem like a struggle? There definitely were times early in my career where I wondered if we were going to survive. But the older (and maybe wiser) I’ve become, the more I’ve come to understand that success comes from within us. While there may be some external influences, it’s really all about how we see the world when we get up in the morning; how we choose to look at each experience throughout the day, and the impression with which we are left when our head hits the pillow at night. In other words, we’ll struggle if we believe we are struggling. Or, we’ll see the incredibly short time we are riding this planet as a golden opportunity for experimentation, innovation, mastery and joy.

We throw off the chains of “struggle” when we embrace a life filled with positive energy and gratitude. And then we can pursue our purposeful vision with confidence.

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 Lone Ranger Entrepreneur

One of the businesses with which I’m involved is in the venture capital space. We identify, evaluate, vet and fund startup companies in the animal health, agribusiness and human health verticals. As you might imagine, we see everything under the sun. Founders present some pretty unique ideas along with financial projections that are pretty concrete on one end of the scale, to total pie in the sky on the other; slide decks that range from extremely good to extremely poor; business plans that might be exquisite or often are ridiculous; and valuations that are mostly “are you kidding?” though there are a few that are quite reasonable.

We really dig into the details, ask a lot of questions and look at a lot of documents. We pay close attention to whether the founder has the right passion and temperament as well as what kind of a problem his or her idea solves. It’s a good sign if the founder has some skin in the game and a vision that goes beyond simply cashing out down the road. And then we get to one of the central Go vs. No-Go questions – is the founder the Lone Ranger or is there a strong team in place?

Believe me when I tell you that there are some amazingly brilliant entrepreneurs out there. These people are scary smart and have world-changing ideas . . . but many won’t get funded because they haven’t (or won’t) put together a world-class team. The risk is too great from an investor’s perspective to make a bet on a Lone Ranger. Growing a business to any scalable level requires some very talented human capital. And the founder that says, “Invest in me now and I’ll go out and hire the talent,” just doesn’t understand. As investors we want to know who is going to be on the team from the get-go. It’s important for us to know if the chemistry is right; if everyone is committed; if the necessary principal skillsets are covered, and if all members of the team are on the same page.

There’s an obvious parallel here between startups looking for funding and our own entrepreneurial endeavors. In fact, we should step back and take a hard look at our own organizations as though we are presenting to venture capitalists. And here’s the hardball question we must ask. If we are hit by the proverbial bus today will our team be able to carry on tomorrow? Will our company survive and thrive, or will it die? I know many entrepreneurs who believe their businesses are too small to justify a world-class team. To manage the risks that are inherent in entrepreneurship I think we need to scale to a size where such a team is a must-have. But can we afford not to have such a team in place as we push to scale? Think about it this way. It’s kind of like walking on thin ice across a lake. We hope with every step that we can make it to the other side without falling in. And if the ice breaks and we fall through we’re dead without the team. On the other hand, if the team is in place, it can pull us out of the water should we take the icy plunge.

Some of us may be Lone Rangers because we think we can do it better than anyone else. In other cases, we may know we need to build a team but don’t know how to find the right people. And there may yet be other instances where we don’t believe we can afford to hire the team at the present time. My response to all these reasons is a repeat of my previously posed question, “If I’m hit by the bus today, will my company survive and thrive tomorrow?” If the answer is no, then it’s probably time to get busy with developing and implementing a strategy to build a strong team as quickly as possible.

While the Lone Ranger was a beloved fictional character from a different era, it isn’t a concept well-suited for a growing company. Building a world-class team is a solid way to manage risk in today’s entrepreneurial environment.

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.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 “We” Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship is a team sport. Successful organizations are built on the collective effort of many talented and dedicated people. As leaders, we need to look for every opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of others. I’ve seen study after study that tells us that recognition and appreciation is very important to the culture that we are building – in some cases it is valued as highly as compensation and benefits. And yet there are countless instances where leaders shine the spotlight on themselves and take the credit for a successful endeavor. How does this manifest?

A business leader has been asked by a reporter how his company competed for and won a very large piece of business. Listen to how this statement sounds. “I have had a long-term relationship with the client and have worked for years to get to this point. I developed an innovative strategy that worked just as I thought it would. It’s all queued up so that all my employees have to do is execute.” A more thoughtful leader might have said it this way. “We have had a long-term relationship with the client, and our team worked hard to develop and implement an innovative strategy that was spot-on. Our entire organization had a hand in this success, and we are grateful to each and every team member for their contribution. We especially want to thank Alice Doe and John Smith who led the effort.” Notice the second statements did not contain the word “I” a single time? It was filled with the words “we” and “our.” It acknowledged the entire team and focused the spotlight on those team members who were at the forefront of the initiative.

What does it take to become a “We” Entrepreneur? First and foremost, we must have a genuine and authentic attitude about who gets the credit. If we are secure enough in our own skin, we check our ego at the door and do whatever we can to shine the spotlight on the good work provided by members of our team. This means that we must reverse some of the patterning we received as children. When I was young and attending school, we were praised for properly answering a question posed by the teacher. While there was nothing wrong with this, it did create an attention-craving atmosphere for some students. We wanted to receive the approval from an adult which was our proof that we were worthy of their accolades. Parents, teachers, coaches and a host of other adults were a party to this endless cycle.

Breaking out of the childhood approval-and-acceptance-seeking mode to become an authentic “We” Entrepreneur requires a couple of steps. First, we need to come to a deep understanding within ourselves that we are worthy. In the early years of my career this was a difficult concept because I had little to no experience. I felt a compelling need to prove to the world that I belonged in the big leagues. Eventually I found that when I excelled, my actions spoke louder than chest-beating. In other words, we develop the understanding of worthiness by challenging ourselves and steadily performing at high levels.

Once we have developed a strong sense of self-worth, we look for ways to focus on the accomplishments of others and celebrate when they occur. In other words, we fix the “inner” (me) first and then move to the “outer” (others). This will take practice. We won’t become adept at the “We” concept overnight as I, me, my and mine will creep in to our consciousness periodically. Here’s something that helped me and I still do to this day. When I write an e-mail, a text message, a letter or any other form of written communications, I review it before sending and remove any I, me, my and mine references and replace them with we, our and us, wherever that it makes sense. This approach helps keep me mindful of my mission to be a “We” Entrepreneur and spills over into my verbal communications as well. And after doing this for an extended period of time, it will be more than just a communications tool – you’ll really believe it! We will see the value in the contribution of others and be truly grateful. At that point our acknowledgement will become a genuine part of our persona.

The “We” Entrepreneur is gracious and unassuming. He or she is always appreciative of what others contribute to the success of the team and makes a special effort to shine the spotlight accordingly.

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.

Who is Riding the Bus?

Here’s a scenario. Sales are flat. The product development team is feuding with the marketing folks. Production is lagging and customer complaints are trending in the wrong direction. Sounds like a nightmare situation – right? It’s at a time like this that makes us wonder why we became entrepreneurs in the first place! As we try to sort out this mess, something becomes quickly apparent. We have the wrong people on the bus.

The whole problem wouldn’t even exist if we had selected the right people in the first place. But for most of us, we are where we are and must deal with an unwise hire here and a hopeful hire there. Rarely do we make the right hiring decisions from the get-go and find smooth sailing forevermore. Something I’ve grappled with for decades is when to change out the people on the bus – and sometimes the bus driver to boot! The mistake I’ve made over and over has been to give people too many chances and believe that if I just find the “right slot” for someone, that I can “save” him or her. In recent times I’ve come to realize that we’re not in the business of doing social work and it does no favor to someone who is miscast to continue to try and salvage them.

Most of us have a level of empathy that prevents us from being the type of person who simply says, “You’re fired!” But there’s undoubtedly a middle ground. We don’t have to have a hair trigger and instantly terminate someone who is beginning to struggle. And we also don’t need to continue to enable someone for months or even years who can’t get the job done.

As with much about entrepreneurship, there is a process that can make the decision to invite someone off the bus both humane and timely. We start with clear written roles and accountabilities. It’s imperative that our team members truly understand what is expected of them. Roles and accountabilities should be quite comprehensive, and they must be measurable. We also must make sure that our team members understand how to perform their roles and accountabilities and that they have the proper resources to succeed. If I tell a non-pilot that he is responsible for flying a passenger jet from New York to LA I can be very clear about this. But if he’s not trained to fly the plane, then it will either fail to get off the ground or if it does, well, what happens might not be pretty. I realize that this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it illustrates the point.

Hand-in-hand come key performance indicators. These are the metrics by which we determine if the roles and accountabilities are being sufficiently executed. Ongoing performance reviews are also an important element of ensuring that the right people are on the bus. Some companies do an annual performance review. This may be fine in a formal sense, but team members need a continual feedback loop. Then there will be no surprises when the annual review is performed. It’s also helpful (and often judicious) to offer a written assessment as part of the continual feedback process. It’s not so much to build the file as it is to make sure that everyone is on the same page regarding where improvement is needed.

Often when things are going poorly, it’s the result of a lack of roles and accountabilities; or a lack of training; or a lack of proper resources to get the job done; or a lack of measuring results; or a lack of providing team member feedback, or all of the above. When this happens and we must make a change in personnel, we dread having to take action. Why? Because we know deep inside that we probably didn’t do everything necessary to be completely fair with our team member.

Ensuring that we have the right people on the bus is a strong step toward building a successful culture and producing the results we desire. And following a well-designed process to invite people off the bus who aren’t the right fit will allow us to act objectively and at the right pace.

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.

Tell Me What You See

When you look at me, what do you see? When you look at others, what do you see? Am I judged by my appearance? Are you skeptical or wary? These thoughts offer an interesting commentary on our society in general and on entrepreneurship in particular. Here’s what I have observed – about others and sometimes about myself. Are we actually looking for the good in our fellow man, or are we focused on finding fault? The political situation has disproportionately magnified this concern. Our country is so divided and partisan that it’s easy to instantly brand another person based upon what we perceive to be their ideology. Rightly or wrongly, if they are branded as a liberal or conservative; a Democrat or Republican, we may automatically draw conclusions that don’t serve us well.

I am renewing my efforts to work harder to see the good in others; to help build others up, rather than tearing them down. Does this sound trite? Think about it for a moment. Jonathan is negotiating to purchase a piece of equipment for his factory. There are major dollars involved and he has located the item that is only slightly used. Jonathan’s first thought is, “I wonder how I’m going to get screwed by the seller?” Right out of the blocks he’s telling the universe that he expects to be taken advantage of. He knows nothing about the individual who is selling the equipment. When asked why he feels this way, he responds, “Well, you can’t trust anyone these days.” Wow! We’ve all heard this before. But why would we set expectations this way? The transaction is immediately infused with negative energy from the start.

Here’s another one. Molly is the 28-year of vice-president of marketing at a consumer products company. While interacting with a prospective client who is in his sixties, he makes a rather inartful comment. Molly is immediately triggered into thinking that she is being harassed. The comment was harmless to the client from a generational perspective, but Molly now sees him as a horrible person. From this point forward, everything he says and does is seen by Molly in a negative light.

Here’s the last example. Henry is interviewing candidates to fill a software development position. One individual had a very pronounced southern accent and was slightly overweight. These traits were off-putting to Henry and he scratched the candidate from consideration. This was a classic case of “judging a book by its cover.”

Now let’s look at the flip side of these encounters. For Jonathan, he had no idea that the company selling the used piece of equipment had a new piece of equipment arriving within two weeks and needed to quickly remove the old piece. To accomplish this, the company marked down the price significantly in order to move it.  The equipment had been maintained in pristine condition and was truly a bargain. Instead of her knee-jerk reaction to the older client, Molly might have chalked it up as a comment that was not intended to be offensive and watched to see if there was any other behavior that warranted concern. Finally, had Henry tested his candidate, he might have found a brilliant mind hiding inside that southern good old boy.

Ronald Reagan once used the term, “trust but verify” when answering a question about nuclear disarmament. This concept remains as viable today as it did back in the 1980s. Rather than thinking the worst about others, we instead genuinely think the best about them and through our interactions, verify that they deserve our positive feelings and goodwill. Instead of being on guard all the time, we embrace others and reject the notion that they intend to do us harm. If at some point it is clear they are intentionally breaking our trust, then we change our feelings toward them.

Our entrepreneurial endeavors are enhanced when we see the best in others. When we establish our relationships in a positive manner they will flourish. When we help build others up, both parties will be the beneficiaries. I recently had the opportunity to begin working with an individual that represents a company with which we’ve done business for years. Another member of our team had previously dealt with him numerous times and had fairly negative things to say about their encounters. I chose not to have preconceived notions about this individual and after several e-mails and conversations, found him to be most pleasant and helpful. He conducted himself honorably and while a little slow with his responses, always managed to follow through. I believe that if I had bought into my teammates feelings, my interactions might have been less positive.

When we adopt the trust but verify attitude, we can build strong and lasting relationships that will flourish over time. Thus, when you ask me what I see, I say that it’s all good.

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.

Un-Stale Leadership Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern leadership still embodies ageless basics and fundamentals that unlike bread, never grow stale. But there are some “new age” twists that help propel us to new heights of success and create sustainable organizations in the process.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Winning

“Just concentrate on throwing the ball over the plate rather than breaking the sound barrier and be more varied and selective with your pitches.” That’s the advice catcher Norm Sherry gave to future Hall of Fame pitcher, Sandy Koufax, in 1961. Prior to that Koufax had labored through several seasons of mediocre pitching. Once he solved his control problem, he became nearly unhittable striking out 2,396 batters in his relatively short career. Koufax retired from the game in 1967 at age 30. Without a doubt, he went out a winner.

When we think of winning, what comes to mind? Most of us would say that we have achieved the success of victory – that’s the obvious answer. But when we’re asked how we won, the answer becomes a bit murkier. So, exactly how do we win? Do we simply throw the ball harder than anyone else? Or is there something deeper?

As we study great winners in sports and other walks of life one thing becomes abundantly clear. Great winners are fanatical about the basics and fundamentals of what they do. We’ve all heard how the basics and fundamentals are the foundational elements to success. And yet many times we just want to swing hard and hit the ball into the left field seats. The result is that we often strikeout. Lesson #1 – we’ll strikeout less and win more if we pay attention to how well we are executing the basics and fundamentals of our game. In business, perhaps we have enjoyed a winning streak lately. Human nature may cause us to take our foot off the accelerator and start enjoying the ride. What happens then? Maybe our winning streak comes to an end. We haven’t spent the time and energy continuing to cultivate relationships. We aren’t making the follow-up calls that we used to make. And we aren’t doing the homework necessary to understand what our customers really need and want.

Sandy Koufax would be an anomaly in today’s sports environment. He shunned the spotlight and stayed out of the public eye. He loved violin music – it’s said that Mendelsohn was one of his favorite composers. He chose not to chase the money and quit the game rather than risk further injury to an ailing arm. He was his own man which in itself is a special mindset. Lesson #2 – ignoring the noise in the world around us and maintaining our focus puts us on the path to winning.

Winning is seemingly about competing – right? Well, yes and no. If we are out to “beat” someone else the chances are higher that we won’t. In other words, if we become fixated on how to beat the competition, we’re really ceding our power to someone else. Why? Because our focus has shifted away from what we need to do to execute in the necessary fashion, and we’re now conjuring a methodology that we think will give us a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, we’ve forgotten that the way we win is to ignore the noise around us and execute our game plan in a flawless manner. Lesson #3 – don’t allow our competition to dictate the terms and conditions for winning.

Zig Ziglar famously said, “You were born to win, but to be a winner, you must plan to win, prepare to win, and expect to win.” I used the term “special mindset” in this blog. The only thing special is the absolute, 100% core belief that we deserve to win, and we will win. But there’s one more piece to this puzzle. We must relax into winning. If our intensity is too great, we can easily deviate from the basics and fundamentals and overcompensate. I’ve seen terrific baseball pitchers that start losing because they are so amped up that they try to “throw” the ball and over-control it, rather than relaxing and “pitching” the way they know how. Lesson #4 – to win, we must believe that we will and we must remain relaxed while doing so.

Winning is a relatively simple formula that involves always executing the basics and fundamentals; ignoring all the noise that is going on around us; playing our game and not trying to beat the competition and believing without any doubt that we’ll win. Oh, and yes, relax. Putting it altogether ensures that we’ll be Hall of Famers in our own right.

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.