The No-Fault Entrepreneur

There’s a game we learned how to play as children. Remember this? Parent – “Who tracked this mud into the house?” Children (pointing fingers) – “Freddy did it!” Then there was always that one kid who did this. Tattle-Tale Kid – “Miss Flanders, Jimmy knocked over the globe in the back of the room after recess and broke it.” As we got older and started our careers, how many times did we hear conversations like this? “We lost the Smith account. It was because John Doe didn’t pull his weight and let us down.” Ah yes, we all know about the “blame game.”

Why is it that human nature drives us to deflect blame and make sure everyone knows “I didn’t do it?” Is this a self-confidence thing? Maybe it’s reflective of the fact that none of us want to disappoint others. Whatever the case, the blame game is unproductive in any entrepreneurial environment. And it signals a flaw in an organization’s culture when the game is played regularly. Perhaps those who make mistakes are so severely held accountable that everyone is afraid to be tagged with a flub.

Entrepreneurial leaders should shun the blame game and adopt a different mindset. It’s a mindset that goes like this – “It may not be my fault, but it is my problem.” And here’s where the real leadership begins. Rather than reacting with a “whose fault is this,” the enlightened leader says instead, “Houston, we have a problem. Let’s talk about how we’re going to fix it.” Thus, the first step is identifying the problem and working with the team to find a solution. When we make this the go-to response every single time, the fear of blame among our teammates is dissipated. But solving the problem doesn’t mean that we’re finished with the issue.

Once the smoke clears and the problem has been fixed, it’s critical that we move to the second step. This is where we look at the various facets of the problem and figure out how it can be prevented in the future. It might be that we need to re-design a system or process. Maybe more training would be helpful. It’s also possible that roles and accountabilities for the team members involved weren’t as clear and precise as necessary. All of this can be accomplished without playing the blame game.

Let’s apply these principles to a real-life scenario.

Old Way – Boss says to his employees, “We were just fired by a customer because the product he ordered wasn’t delivered on time. I want to know who is at fault here, and that person needs to be standing in my office before 4:30 this afternoon.” What happens next? The blame game starts, and someone invariably is singled out to be the sacrificial lamb. They know that there are going to be harsh repercussions, and no one wants to be anywhere close to the boss’s office at 4:30.

Better Way – Entrepreneur says to the team, “We were just fired by a customer because the product he ordered wasn’t delivered on time. I have apologized to him on behalf of our organization and told him that not only is there no charge for his product, but to convince him to give us another chance, we’ll give him a 50% discount on his next order.”

Later in the day the customer agrees to give the company another chance at which point the entrepreneurial leader says to the team, “Congratulations! Our customer has agreed to give us another chance. Let’s meet at 4:30 to talk about how we can make sure that our systems and processes are modified to ensure that our products are always delivered on time.”

The team members at the first company are fearful and aren’t the least bit interested in dealing with the problem. The just want to avoid the wrath of the boss. The team members at the second company are focused on fixing the problem and then figuring out how to keep it from happening again. There is no fear because their leader subscribes to a no-fault, work-the-problem philosophy.

Our entrepreneurial endeavors are much more likely to flourish when our team members can focus on fixing problems that arise as opposed to being on the defensive and looking over their shoulders in fear. The premise is a simple yet powerful one.

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 Fearful Entrepreneur

What are you afraid of? I don’t mind confessing that I have issues with claustrophobia. This manifests when I get inside an MRI machine. Even an open CT scanner gives me the heebie jeebies. My heart pounds in my chest and my blood pressure goes through the roof. I don’t know what happened in the past for me to develop this fear, but it’s a cross I bear. I’ll never forget the time I heard about a poor soul who was exploring a cave and got stuck deep inside – upside down – and no matter how hard they tried, rescuers could not get him out. Within days of that story, I found myself in an MRI machine for 45 minutes. It took every ounce of my fortitude not to completely freak out.

I don’t know of a single entrepreneur who doesn’t experience a fear of something. There is the fear of public speaking, fear of heights, fear of flying, fear of being in social settings, fear of spiders (and snakes), fear of death and a wide assortment of other phobias that we may experience at a personal level. And then there’s what I consider to be “entrepreneurial fears.” Let’s examine a few of them and their antidotes.

  1. Competition“I’m afraid that the competition will overtake my company. I’m also fearful that someone is going to steal my business concept and crush us.” There’s a lot to unpack here. The forward-thinking entrepreneur will see competition as a healthy factor in his or her business life. If we have the right mindset, we can use competition to make us better. How? We do this by understanding exactly what our customers need and want and tool our product or service accordingly. We know that the competition is probably studying the customer in similar fashion – we just have to do it better!
  2. Ideas “My ideas are no good. I’m afraid that I’m just not creative enough to win in this business.” No one knows our ideas better that do we. And it’s not so much about having fresh new ideas as it is our ability to iterate on those we already have – or that someone else has. Look at Facebook for example. Many students of the Facebook phenomenon point out that the company has rarely had a new idea. They simply steal ideas from other developers or companies and execute them better.
  3. Failure “I’m afraid to fail and I’m afraid of what others will think of me if I fail.” This is one of the most common entrepreneurial fears that I’ve heard during my career. Unfortunately, this fear reflects a misunderstanding about what failure is. Too many entrepreneurs confuse “failure” with “defeat.” Failure is simply an unfinished experiment in the laboratory of life. It’s part of a process that we undertake to achieve success. Success is built on failure. Without some failure along the way, how do we really know that we have succeeded in optimal fashion?
  4. Money “I’m afraid that my money is going to run out before I succeed.” There are entrepreneurial stories abound where the founder was down to a triple digit bank balance and somehow pulled a rabbit out of a hat and turned things around. I also know that there are many more stories of businesses that folded when the cash spigot turned off. In the entrepreneurial world we learn how to improvise. We learn how to stretch a buck. We barter and trade. Better yet, we always have a Plan B in our hip pocket . . . just in case. Having a little bit of the “cash-strapped” fear is actually a healthy thing as long as we use it in a positive way to maintain focus on scaling our enterprise.
  5. Talent “I’m afraid a competitor is going to steal my best people; or my best people are going to walk across the street and start their own company.” Here’s the thing. If we provide the best value for our team, they’ll stick around which is the same philosophy we adopt with our customers. Sure, employees want to be fairly compensated, but loyalty goes beyond pay and benefits. Developing a dynamic culture goes a long way toward talent retention. So does making people feel that they and the contribution they make are genuinely valued. In the companies with which I’m involved, we don’t lock up our team members with long-term contracts or non-compete agreements. Instead, it’s incumbent upon us as leaders to show our team every single day how they are in the right place with our firm.

Being afraid can either be paralyzing or motivating. Smart entrepreneurs overcome fear to propel themselves to great success.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 129 – The NPS and You.

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.

Opportunities to Fail

Some years back we developed an exercise that can be beneficial for every entrepreneur. We all want to manage risk – not take risk. I’ve said it before that taking risk is akin to rolling the dice. Managing risk is an intentional process to minimize or eliminate risk to the greatest extent possible. To this end we created a process called Opportunities to Fail.

Some might say that “Opportunities to Fail” sounds negative and ought to be called something else. But, it is named this way on purpose. Why? Because we believe that whether we succeed or fail is almost totally within our control. Thus, we have the opportunity to succeed or to fail – it’s up to us as entrepreneurs which we choose.

Let’s say that we are considering launching a new division, a new product or service, or embarking upon some other endeavor for which there are numerous risks. The Opportunities to Fail exercise begins with assembling all of the stakeholders from the team and beginning a series of brainstorming sessions. The first such session is that of identifying all of the different risks that are inherent surrounding whatever we are preparing to do. For this purpose we developed a simple Excel spreadsheet on which we log the risks. To each, we assign a numerical value on a scale of one to 10 – both in terms of Probability and Impact. We arbitrarily determined that we would weight Impact 25% higher. So, if a particular risk is assigned a 10 for Probability it means that there’s a high likelihood of this risk being realized. And if that same risk is also a 10 for Impact, it means that if the risk is realized, it could have a very detrimental effect. Thus, the Probability score is 10 and the Impact score is 12.5 (due to the 25% extra weighting) for a total score of 22.5.

Remember that during the first exercise we are only identifying the various risks and assigning Probability and Impact scores – we’re not solving anything yet. Usually this inventory process takes a couple of hours and there may be as many as 25, 30 or even more risks. When someone says, “An asteroid could drop out of the sky and destroy us,” it’s probably time to wrap it up. We then re-order the risks in the spreadsheet from the highest numerical value to the lowest, and circulate it to the stakeholders for a few days of contemplation. Everyone is empowered to offer additional risks during this time frame with their thoughts on scoring.

The second meeting of the group will take place within three or four days of the first, and is devoted to risk mitigation. We look at the highest scoring risks and discuss ways that we will prevent the risk from coming to fruition. In addition, wherever possible we also add a contingency plan in the event that somehow the risk “leaks through” our mitigation program. This way if a high-risk item bites us, it doesn’t kill us. We have found that there’s a natural breakpoint in the list. Perhaps there are 17 risks that rank at 14 or higher, and then there’s a gap with the next grouping of risks starting at a score of eight. We generally don’t worry too much about low-scoring risks as their Probability is usually low, and even if they happen, the Impact is minimal. Instead we spend our time ensuring that we have robust mitigation and contingency plans for the most dangerous risks.

At the end of the second meeting we ask this simple question – “Are we totally comfortable moving ahead with this endeavor?” If there is still fear and trepidation, then it means that we haven’t sufficiently mitigated one or more of the risks. Or it could mean that there is something nagging in the back of the minds of our team that still need to be put on the table. It’s at this point that we engage in additional discussion and mitigate further until we have total buy-in; we modify our endeavor to the point that everyone is comfortable, or we determine that should not move forward at all. The ultimate objective is to either move ahead knowing that we aren’t going to fail, or not to move forward at all.

A few days later a third meeting of stakeholders occurs. Each member of the group reaffirms his or her belief that we have adequately mitigated the risks and should proceed. Then we brainstorm for ways to Exploit the Opportunity. This is a lot of fun. We spend our time looking for ways that we can enhance the opportunity and make it even bigger and better than we initially envisioned – without adding new risks.

Utilizing the Opportunities to Fail exercise is a liberating experience. It puts us in a position to manage risk rather than take risk, and allows us to choose success.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 124 – Do the Hustle.

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 picture taken on October 18, 2015 shows a participant jumping off a platform for a wingsuit flight from Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie, central China’s Hunan province. Some 16 participants from 12 countries are taking part in the extreme sport event. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Entrepreneurial Insecurities

Let’s go exploring. Let’s explore the mind of an entrepreneur. What types of thoughts are entrepreneurs thinking? The answer may surprise you. Many people see entrepreneurs as self-confident, assertive individuals who always have it “all together.” Look at the roster of famous entrepreneurs – Sir Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. Certainly no shrinking violets in this bunch!

So, we’re all like this star-studded list of entrepreneurs – right? Well . . . maybe not so much. All that moxie and nerves of steel gives way to self-doubts and uncertainty. Am I a fake? Am I not good enough? What if I fail and lose all my money? No one likes me or my idea. These thoughts are insidious and destructive. And yet we think them anyway.

We’ve all heard the “fake it till you make it” mantra. This implies that an entrepreneur is continuing to perfect his or her product/service while still pulling out the stops to sell it. Products and services are iterative and there will always be newer and better models. Our entrepreneurial insecurities emerge when we worry that there may be flaws in the current version that cause such a strong level of customer dissatisfaction that our whole enterprise bombs. This is where the “fake it” part of the equation can spill over into our psyche and cause us to question whether or not we really know what we’re doing.

“What if I’m not good enough?” Often we’ll see other entrepreneurs who seem to be riding the wave. Everything is going right for them and we surmise that they are on top of the world. Perhaps we’ve just suffered a setback of some sort. We look at the competitive landscape and begin to wonder if we’re losing the race. This feeling intensifies as this cycle persists – others seem to be winning and we aren’t.

It’s 3:00 AM and we wake up in a cold sweat. Our hearts are pounding and we’re a bit disoriented. We’ve just launched a major project that by our assessment, involves more risk than we’re used to taking. Then the mind games begin. We see the endeavor cratering which will cost us a lot of money . . . not to mention reputation. This is followed by the thought that we’re losing our mojo and our business will eventually fail. Ultimately we declare bankruptcy, lose our house, are divorced by our spouse and end up living under a bridge!

Finally, some of us may be feeling rejected. Again, we may have been told “no” so many times that we begin to wonder what is wrong with us. Is there something about our personality, the way we look, the things we say or the way we act? Maybe it has something to do with where we live, the car we drive, the people who are our friends or even where we went to school. Our natural reaction is to feel hurt and maybe even victimized.

Entrepreneurial insecurities are understandable but unproductive. It’s important that we recognize them; resolve them as quickly as possible, and move on. Allowing them to fester can be a slippery slope to some serious career or life-threatening behaviors. Drug and alcohol abuse, deteriorating health, extramarital affairs, gambling, physical and psychological abuse of loved ones and even suicidal tendencies are some of the more prevalent examples.

We entrepreneurs thrive when we have a healthy self-image. Developing great resilience is critical to our success in this arena. Smoothing out the ups and downs of our fast-paced lives is also a step in the right direction. Earlier in my career I would experience the euphoria of winning to the fullest. But similarly, I would experience the depression of losing to the fullest as well. These wild emotional swings would result in my feeling on “edge” much of the time. The feeling of victory was fantastic, but I always wondered when the other shoe was going to drop.

I’ve learned to moderate my emotions. When I am part of a winning experience, I know I’ve been there before. And it’s the same with the losses. I know what it takes to achieve victory and I know what to do to avoid defeat. Some of this is simply age and experience. But I believe most of it is the mindset I have chosen for myself. The key word in the previous sentence is “choice.”

We can avoid the pitfalls and traps that are set when we have entrepreneurial insecurities. This is accomplished by celebrating our success not by spiking the ball in the end zone, but through understanding exactly how we won and replicating it over and over. Steadfastly focusing on our vision for the future is paramount to warding off negativity and self-doubt. Above all, we build our resilience by maintaining our optimism and positive attitude, no matter what.

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 71 – Civil War.

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.

Alarm clock on night table showing 3 a.m.

Narrow Guardrails

Consider the following conversation that an entrepreneur named George is having with himself. “I really would like to accept the invitation to speak to the Downtown Civic Club. But I’m afraid I’ll be too nervous.” Here’s a similar conversation being held in the head of Megan, another budding entrepreneur. “I just don’t know. Maybe I should apply for that fellowship – but the odds aren’t in my favor to win.” And finally, Entrepreneur Don is thinking, “I’m reluctant to invest in a new product line because I’m not convinced it can succeed.”

But there’s more of a story behind each of these “conversations.” For George, he remembers the time several years ago when he made a presentation at a conference and was unprepared – he bombed. Megan recalls once applying for a highly coveted membership in a leadership organization. The process was very competitive and Megan’s application was rejected. Finally, Don previously invested in a product line that failed and he lost a chunk of change on the idea. I’m going to use a descriptive phrase for what is happening that will probably demonstrate a generation gap. What George, Megan and Don are doing is “playing old tapes.” Some younger members of the audience who may not know what “tapes” are. In the old days, some of us “old people” listened to music and dialogue on a thin magnetized strip of plastic film. There were reel-to-reel tapes, eight track tapes and cassette tapes to name a few “tape” formats.

To “play old tapes” is to recall negative experiences from the past and make decisions today based upon those experiences. Playing old tapes generally embraces the notion of lack and limitation. It’s based in fear – often an irrational fear – that shakes our confidence. Over time, these old tapes can have a paralyzing effect for an entrepreneur. Eventually we can fall into a rut with narrow guardrails that are reflective of our past failures. What we really want to do is to venture off this rutted road to nowhere and get back on the freeway that will take us to our dreams.

Getting rid of old tapes is harder than it sounds, but it can (and must) be done. First, we embrace who we are right now. We cannot change the past. There’s not a single person alive today who hasn’t made mistakes. And I think it’s safe to say that all of us have made many. We should use the past for its instructive elements while discarding the emotional aspects of how it felt to be embarrassed, hurt or even shamed. The instructive element for George is to always be sufficiently prepared for future presentations. It’s in his best interest to release the humiliation that he carries for it serves no purpose. In a sense, it’s time to get rid of the rearview mirror.

Once we have determined the instructive elements from our past mistakes and thrown out the emotional rearview mirror, we move on to the next step. What exactly does our success look like? For Megan, she holds an image in her mind’s eye. She sees herself attending a luncheon with hundreds of other people. And at the appointed time, she hears her name being called and watches as she walks to the stage to receive congratulations for winning the fellowship. This visualization is powerful and is a “tape” worth playing over and over. In so doing, we pattern our brain to be receptive to the success that awaits us.

Finally, we celebrate by making new “tapes.” This is accomplished by rejoicing in the small victories that we constantly encounter. We entrepreneurs think big. We set lofty goals and we are always pushing for the big wins. But we tend to overlook the small wins we experience every single day. Entrepreneur Don realizes that his sales are growing at a respectable pace. His team has been 100% intact for four years. His defective product returns are zero. All of these factors are wins and Don should take pride in their achievement. He now sees that he’s on the right track and is perfectly capable of making the right decisions.

We stop the process of playing old tapes by discerning the instructive elements from our past mistakes and eliminating the negative emotions that we remember. Then we repeatedly visualize our success and celebrate the wins we are experiencing on a daily basis. The end result is a completely new set of positive tapes that are free of lack and limitation.

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 52 – Ice and Eskimos.

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.

Oh Those Surly Bonds

I’m proud to say that I’m an entrepreneur in a state of denial. And I suggest that you too should be in a similar state of denial. Why you ask, would an entrepreneur want to be in denial? After all, we’re eternal optimists and have a never-say-die approach to everything . . . right? Here’s what I’m in denial about.

I deny fear. I realize that fear freezes me into a state of inertia, or causes me to make irrational decisions. Fear saps my energy and causes me to ride an emotional roller-coaster. Fear robs me of my creativity and my initiative. I will not be afraid.

I deny all thoughts of self-doubt. Self-doubt is my mortal enemy. It causes me to question my instincts and clouds my intuition. I become tentative and worry about making mistakes. Self-doubt destroys my confidence and causes me to question my abilities. I will not allow self-doubt to manifest in my life.

I deny any belief that I’m a victim. There may be times when I feel that I’ve been wronged or believe someone has done something that prevents my success. I realize that when I feel victimized I’m giving away my power to someone else. Playing the victim fills me with negative energy. I will not be a victim to anyone for anything.

I deny all thoughts of lack and limitation. I stop myself when I start to utter phrases such as, “I can’t because,” “I’m not able,” and “if only.” My entrepreneurial spirit is dulled when I think that I am limited in some way. I realize that the only limitations I have are those that I place upon myself. I will not allow thoughts of lack and limitation to creep into my consciousness.

Being in denial about fear, self-doubt, beliefs of victimization, and thoughts of lack and limitation is only the first of two critical steps. It’s not enough to simply deny these negative factors. We must replace them with positive action-oriented affirmations. I deny fear and embrace faith. I deny self-doubt and have total confidence in who I am and what I’m doing. I deny any belief that I’m a victim and take full responsibility for my actions. I deny all thoughts of lack and limitation and know that my opportunities have no bounds.

Denying that which will inhibit me and affirming the positive direction I will take, allows me to release the surly bonds that hold me. And then I can soar to new heights.

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.

space-shuttle-atlantis

Beam Me Up Scotty

Did you know that Michael Jordan was cut by his high school basketball team because it was determined that he lacked skill? Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times in his stellar career. Winston Churchill flunked sixth grade. Elvis Presley was once told that his career was going nowhere and he should drive a truck. Authors Stephen King, John Grisham, Theodore Seuss Giesel and cartoonist Charles Schultz were all rejected more than 85 times before being published.

What do all of these famous people have in common? They all are or were extremely self-confident. Successful entrepreneurs need a healthy dose of self-confidence. Without it the chances to achieve our goals and objectives drop precipitously. We also must guard against misunderstanding confidence for arrogance. Arrogance is actually overcompensation for a lack of confidence.

So how do we go about building self-confidence? Allow me to share my experience with you. Early in my career I struggled in this department. I graduated from college at 21 years of age and immediately began working for the company I’ve been with ever since. I thought I was pretty confident when I was in school but in the real world I discovered a lot of self-doubt. It didn’t help that I was told that I was just a punk kid who didn’t know anything. This statement was reinforced for a number of years – and I let it get inside my head. Eventually I came to realize that with a few years of experience under my belt and some creative successes along the way, I really did know what I was doing.

Here are some ideas. Repetition is extremely important. Identify one or more things that you feel less confident about and do them over and over again. Perhaps it’s public speaking or maybe it’s interacting with lots of other people in a large group setting. Set standards for what you believe to be “good” or “great.” Try and consistently perform to those standards and when you do, congratulate yourself. Own your mistakes and setbacks. Resist the temptation to blame others or play the victim. When we focus on how we can improve and do things differently the next time, we build confidence for our next encounter in a similar situation. When we celebrate the success of others – including our competitors – it’s a demonstration of confidence. When we criticize others – including our competitors – it’s not. When we’re not afraid to be wrong, that’s evidence of self-confidence. Being defensive and making excuses is not. Being positive and humble are definitely traits of self-confident people.

Self-confidence can ebb and flow. Our goal is to be more consistent with our confidence. But just because we have moments of doubt or fear, doesn’t mean we’re losing our mojo. When we can take a deep breath and understand from where the doubt or fear is coming, that’s a way we can regain our confidence.

Self-confidence enables us to eliminate thoughts of lack and limitation and know the truth about ourselves. In so doing, we can shoot for the stars and realize our true potential. Beam me up Scotty.

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.

Scotty