The Modern Day Entrepreneurial Leader

Are you an entrepreneurial leader? Leadership is such a broad topic that there are scores of books and blogs that focus on nothing else. Let’s scratch the surface by focusing on what leadership means in an entrepreneurial environment.

The modern day entrepreneurial leader is humble. He or she happily gives credit to others for successes realized by the enterprise. By being comfortable in his/her own skin, this entrepreneur delights in shining the spotlight on members of the team who achieve and excel. He or she is also quick to take the blame if something goes wrong. And there’s no pointing of fingers at team members who failed when this happens. This entrepreneur realizes that leadership is all about building other people up – not tearing them down.

The modern day entrepreneurial leader is always aware of others with whom he or she is interacting. This entrepreneur acknowledges them and shows genuine interest in their wellbeing. Expressing gratitude and appreciation is first nature for this person. Regardless of another individual’s station in life, the modern day entrepreneurial leader treats everyone in the same positive and uplifting manner. A smile, eye contact and a heartfelt “thank you” are equally extended to the barista in the coffee shop, the checker in the grocery store and the Fortune 500 CEO.

The modern day entrepreneurial leader always eats last. This may occur literally at the company’s annual picnic, or metaphorically on payday. If a venture is struggling to gain traction and is short on cash, this entrepreneur will make sure everyone else on the team gets paid first. In some instances this leader will even max out a credit card to bridge the gap until revenues from the enterprise provide the necessary cash to keep going.

The modern day entrepreneurial leader is strategic. He or she understands the difference between strategy and tactics and works tirelessly to refine a winning strategy. This strategy is then communicated effectively to each team member who understands exactly how they fit in the organization and what their roles and accountabilities are. The entrepreneur spends more time working “on” his/her business than working “in” it.

While being strategic, the modern day entrepreneurial leader isn’t afraid to get his/her hands dirty either. If there’s a job to be done and no one to do it, this leader jumps in to fill the gap. This could mean anything from answering a phone on the switchboard, making a sales call, spending an hour on the production line (because the individual normally assigned suddenly became ill), to cleaning snow off the front entry stoop. The entrepreneur never believes that any of these tasks are “beneath” him or her.

The modern day entrepreneurial leader is a visionary. He or she can clearly articulate the organization’s vision in a way that is understandable to all involved. And this leader is constantly looking at the industry, the enterprise and the customer to find new ways to innovate. The result may be the creation or refinement of products and services as well as ideas for streamlining the way those products and services are delivered.

The modern day entrepreneurial leader understands the value proposition and can differentiate his or her products/services. This can be a major problem for businesses at all stages of the lifecycle. A muddled approach to the value proposition can lead to confusion and apathy in the marketplace. This leader makes certain that the benefit of his/her products or services is very clear to the customer, and it’s easy to see that such benefits are significantly greater than with competing products or services.

Finally, the modern day entrepreneurial leader is the leading advocate of core values for the enterprise. He or she is always modeling them and high-fiving team members who do the same. These core values aren’t window dressing, but instead are foundational elements for the daily operation of the organization. This leader is also laser-focused on building a strong and positive culture. There is a realization that having the right team members on the bus is paramount and the entrepreneur works tirelessly to ensure that individuals who are not a cultural fit are excused from the enterprise. Further, each team member always knows where he or she stands from a performance perspective. This leader does not use blunt honesty that could harm morale. Instead he or she practices the approach of warm candor where a team member understands where improvement is needed without being destroyed in the process.

The modern day entrepreneurial leader is the complete package. He or she is humble; easily expresses gratitude; puts his/her needs secondary to other team members; is strategic; isn’t afraid to get dirty hands; is a visionary; understands the value proposition, and is the leading advocate for core values and culture.

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 105 – The Case of the Frozen Hostage.

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.

Trained Monkeys

Here’s a question for entrepreneurs that can actually be a rather perplexing conundrum. What is the value that we are adding to what we do every day? Could a trained monkey do it too . . . and maybe even better? Here’s the thing. We sometimes tend to fall into a rut that’s usually within our comfort zone. And then we go through motions every day – over and over and over. Oftentimes we become very, very good at what we do and so it is really easy to keep doing it – over and over and over. But, is it a truly fulfilling experience?

My father-in-law was a funeral director. He was very, very good at what he did and it was evident that he liked helping people. But he always said that when he turned 65 he was done and would retire. And that’s exactly what he did. I concluded that while he liked what he did, he didn’t love it enough to never want to stop doing it. I never did get a chance to ask him before he died what value he brought to what he did every day.

Entrepreneurs think a lot about money. Yet, those I’ve known who do what they do just to make a lot of money tend to become restless and bored. Making a lot of money may be great, but after a while it’s really just a way to keep score. And if we’re winning every day and only doing it for the money, how does one keep the “fire in the belly?” There must be something more.

There’s no denying that we entrepreneurs want to make money. And there’s nothing wrong with this – after all, most of us are unabashed capitalists. But just focusing on the money can lead to a fairly hollow existence. Money is a commodity and eventually we find ourselves feeling like the proverbial trained monkey. That’s when the trouble can begin. Being restless and bored can lead to many issues the least of which might be extramarital affairs, drug or alcohol abuse or even daredevil types of hobbies. I’m not casting aspersion on thrill-seeking activities, but we must examine the real reason that we pursue them. Is it because we are feeling unfulfilled in our business and/or personal lives?

All of this pondering leads us to conclude that we need to be doing something of substance in order to feel fulfilled. I’ve written before about value propositions where customers are concerned. But we also need a personal value proposition that winds us up and keeps us excited, happy and content. My value proposition is the same as my personal WHY (thank you Simon Sinek) which is to make sense of complexity. This manifests in many ways including consistently developing creative ideas and solutions. If a day goes by where I wasn’t challenged creatively or didn’t become immersed in something complicated, I don’t feel fulfilled. Thus, I try and always put myself in situations where this never happens.

Each of us needs to find our own personal value proposition. Perhaps it’s doing things the right way every single time. Maybe it’s about innovation and doing things a better way. Some of us want to make a contribution or a difference in the lives of others. There are those of us who want to create trust and build relationships, while others just want to simplify things. A few entrepreneurs live for mastering what they do and others want to create clarity. Of course there are always a few Steve Jobs types who want to challenge the status quo and think differently.

Discovering our own personal value proposition energizes us and keeps us coming back for more. Being a great entrepreneur hinges on our ability to continually maintain a sense of fulfillment.

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

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The 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’re 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’s a very simple calculus. The first leg is that of Culture. For most of my career I wasn’t 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’ve learned a lot over the past few years and I’m now drinking the Culture Kool-Aid – lots of it. Why? Because I’ve 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’ve 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’re 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’ve 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 don’t 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’s more than just needs and wants . . . it’s also a more comprehensive understanding of buying patterns and lifestyles. It’s about anticipating what the Customer will value. Thus, the value proposition becomes the Holy Grail. How does the customer experience attain complete and total satisfaction?

Maybe I’ve 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’s 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.

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Prom Night

The Holy Grail for business start-ups and mature organizations alike is customer procurement. Winning customers at a sufficient pace is critical to the survival of every company and especially for those at the fledgling stage. And yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen entrepreneurs focus more on other aspects of their businesses rather than making sure they have enough customers to keep the doors open.

There’s no doubt that we must have a minimally viable product that our customers want to buy. And implementing a wide variety of systems and processes is also an important factor. But without the customers, everything else is moot. To find the customers and convince them to spend their money with us requires pulling out all of the stops. Top notch interactive websites, regular informational blogs, referral programs, social media, drip marketing, multi-media advertising and positive publicity are building blocks toward customer procurement. Yet, even with full implementation, the customers may not come in numbers or as quickly as are needed. What to do? Go back to the basics and fundamentals.

Think back to prom night – what was happening? Girls had their hair done. Guys were renting tuxedos. Corsages and boutonnieres were purchased; makeup was applied, and shoes were shined to a fine gloss. In other words, we were all trying to look our very best. Think about this with respect to our products or services. Have we done everything possible to look fantastic to those outside our company?

Do prospective customers clearly understand our value proposition? How strongly are we able to demonstrate that our product or service solves a problem and preferably one with which a lot of pain is associated? This is a major failure for a vast number of companies. Their product/service might be nice to have, but the customer can’t find a compelling reason to purchase it. Think Colgate Kitchen Entrees. Never heard of this? You’re not alone. The folks that make Colgate toothpaste thought it might be a good idea to launch a line of frozen dinners. Customers could eat a Colgate meal and then use Colgate toothpaste to brush their teeth. What kind of a value proposition is that?! If we can’t nail our value proposition then neither can our customers.

Customers have many choices when purchasing a product or service. Entrepreneurs sometimes become so enamored with their own ideas that they fail to objectively assess the competition. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself in the past. I would pooh-pooh a competitor and rationalize that our approach was far more sophisticated and desirable. And yet, I didn’t ask the bottom-line question of what customers liked better about the competition. We may have a product or service that truly is twice as good as anything else on the market, but unless we can make a clear and concise case for differentiation, we’ll be stuck with the rest of the pack. Effectively communicating product or service differentiation means life or death in the business world.

A strong uptrend for customer procurement will happen if we practice the basics and fundamentals. This can be accomplished by presenting our product or service in as attractive a manner as possible; when we have a killer value proposition, and when we effectively communicate how we’re different. Doing all of this will ensure that we’ll be the hit of the party.

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.

prom night

To Proposition or Not To Proposition

The other day I was talking with an entrepreneur about his company. For a number of 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 hadn’t 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’s 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’s 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 isn’t trained to make sure that a diner’s glass of tea or water is always full – even if it’s not their assigned table; likewise, empty plates aren’t 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 doesn’t seem to be a culture of attention to detail. This restaurant probably gets 95% of the dining experience right, but doesn’t 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’d 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’ll 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.

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The High-Wire Act

Question: What do you think about employment contracts and non-compete agreements?

Answer: My perspective on this subject has changed over the years. Earlier in my career I believed in these documents and what they represent. I also looked for ways to create “golden handcuffs” for employees and associates which are basically incentives for keeping people from leaving. No longer.

I have now adopted the philosophy that I don’t want to coerce anyone to work in our various companies. They either want to be there or they don’t. No longer do I obsess over whether people come and go. I decided that I need to do everything possible to create value for our team – so much value that team members can’t go anywhere else and receive as much. Gone are the employment contracts and non-competes. We do use employment letters and independent contractor agreements to simply provide a written record of compensation and other important elements that need to be clearly understood. Non-disclosure agreements also seem reasonable if there is highly proprietary information at stake.

The whole premise of creating value for the team has produced a high-wire act for me – one which I wholeheartedly embrace. I can’t spend one minute resting on my laurels or kicking into a coasting mode. Instead, I must constantly be creative and innovative. I have to constantly be a coach and a mentor. I have to be strategic and visionary on a daily basis. Doesn’t this create unbelievable pressure? NO! It pushes me to be better every minute of every day. If I fail to perform, my teammates will look to see if there is a better value proposition elsewhere. And I don’t blame them.

I’ve been asked what prevents someone from coming on board with the intent to ultimately leave and start his or her own business. And my response is . . . so what? I revert to my initial statement. I’m passionate about providing more value for our team than they can get in another venue – including their own. Perhaps we can accommodate someone who has a goal of owning/running their own business; after all we have eight companies under our umbrella. We’ll happily partner with a budding entrepreneur in our midst that has a good solid idea for a business venture. And if someone has his or her heart set on striking out on their own, we have made a great friend; received value from that individual during their tenure, and may have an opportunity to cross paths again.

The high-wire act requires a great deal of confidence and a complete lack of fear. It has taken me years to get there, but I can testify to the amazing results that are being produced from this mindset.

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

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