..and a fresh, new exciting one about to begin. Although I think it’s a bad idea to only ―check in on how you are doing once a year in January, I can’t help but be a bit more reflective at the end of the year looking back over the events that have happened and asking myself three things:
- What did we do RIGHT and want to do more of?
- Where do we need to improve?
- What mistakes did we make, what did we learn, and how are we going to use this information to improve next year?
This is a helpful exercise to conduct after every major event, client project, sales call, etc. As a team we do this as a practice after every event, and it’s incredibly valuable. And, as the owner of a business, I think we ought to do a deep dive every year to reflect back on these things. So, what do I think we did right? Several things–as reflected by our 30+% growth rate in a tough economy. For me, here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned:
1. Being willing to do what’s right instead of what’s easy. There aren’t many things in life that will put you in a ―damned if you do, damned if you don’t‖ situation more than running a business. As entrepreneurs we’re pulled in many different directions and often have goals that conflict or compete with one another. Do you work late every day to turn around a sales slump and sacrifice some of the time you would have invested in your family and health or do you put more focus on your family and health, and run the risk of not being able to make payroll, ending up with heaps of stress and anxiety over financial troubles? Tough call, and a good argument could be made for either side.
But you have to choose what’s right and best for the long haul and then follow through on your decision. This is why having a vision for your life and your business is so important; you need vision to be able to make the tough decisions. I firmly believe that trying to ride both camps gets you killed. Like the indecisive squirrel in the middle of the road – you get hit by traffic going both ways. Better to pick a side, stick with your decision and focus on muddling through the temporary problems and setbacks that will arise. Although I’m very much an ―and person rather than an ―or person, the reality is that running a business requires sacrifice. Sometimes short term, sometimes long term; but thinking you can do it ALL, all the time is just not realistic.
Over this year I’ve had to make several tough calls that I knew weren’t going to put me on the ―most popular list. Looking back, perhaps you’ve been in the same boat. But I also knew that letting things continue on their current course of action would end up causing even more strife and problems, and would not be in line with our ultimate vision and core values. Yes, there were risks and costs tied to the actions and decisions made, and some short-term losses. But looking back, my only regret is that I didn’t make those decisions sooner. My procrastination only made things worse and now more than ever I believe that long-term damage from comfortable inaction is far worse than decisive action.
2. The ability to hire, retain and grow true “A” players is crucial. While this has always been a no-brainer, I can honestly say that I understand it more than ever today and I will be putting a huge focus on this area in 2010 as we continue to grow at a fast clip and continue to strive towards our BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals). Nothing is more painful, more exhausting and more damaging than having the wrong people on your team. In meetings with clients, the one topic that is a constant area of problems, gripes, disappointments and trouble are those around employees. And while Michael Gerber’s E-Myth is the utopian dream for any entrepreneur (that is, having a business so well documented and systematized that any half-whit can run it), the reality is that one bad employee can quickly undo any system or process no matter how well documented.
But in addition to this, the BIGGEST lesson for me has been this: if you are trying to directly manage more than 3 or 4 people, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Earlier this year, I discovered I was a genius with helpers – and I think all small businesses start that way. But at some point you will need to start developing leaders within your organization; people who understand the company’s mission, vision and goals, and who can get results, make good decisions and solve problems on their own. I have those people in place now and it is making a world of difference. Perhaps you are in the same place right now. If so, my advice to you is this: make finding, hiring, and growing the right people a major focus in your company, and never settle for good enough simply to fill an open seat, no matter how desperate the situation. Also, constantly look for great people–always be hiring. The worse time to look for a new employee is when you desperately need someone.
3. Develop immunity to criticism. It’s been said that the higher you climb in life, the more your butt hangs out (I forget who originally said that, so sorry I can’t give credit where credit is due). And if you read the books of highly successful people, one of the common themes is this: develop thick skin. But how do you determine the difference between fair criticism and unfair attacks?
First, consider the source. I don’t know of any highly successful person or entrepreneur who lashes out with attacks. They’ll give you critique, but they’ll do it in a constructive manner, and their honest purpose is to help you improve or simply to see a better result. Their focus and intent is always on building, not destroying or being vicious to make themselves feel important. Second, make sure the person is QUALIFIED to give you critique. Everyone has an opinion, but most are not valid…kind of like my broke friends giving me advice on money. Third, take the feedback in context. Most people form opinions (and strong ones at that!) without having all the facts. We live in a Twitter society where we hear a 30 second news clip on an event and think we ―got it. As a leader of a company, you have to be careful YOU don’t fall for that–both when uninformed people are criticizing you and before you lay criticism on someone else.
Any critic making statements about a situation without having all the facts is an ignorant fool and should not be listened to. And finally, know that trying to please everyone is a surefire path to failure. No matter what you do, there’s always someone who will tell you how brilliant you are and someone who will tell you it’s the biggest, dumbest mistake of your life. Only you can decide what’s best and right for you, your clients and your company. Recently I heard Frank Kern speak about picking the right clients. Frank is an Internet multi-millionaire who teaches people how to make money online. He pointed out that in the consulting business, the 80/20 rule is in full effect. Only 20% of your clients will be a right fit, will take your advice, follow your instructions, and truly value what you have to offer. I’m sure even in the computer consulting business this holds true. If you look at it, only about 20% of your client base is truly a ―right fit. They really appreciate you, value you, refer others and are champions for your company. The goal, therefore, is to make sure you are listening to and taking direction from the 20% and NOT the criticism of the 80%. This is hard to do when (if you’re like me) you want to help everyone and keep all your clients thrilled and happy. But the reality is, that’s a pipe dream. An exercise I did that helped me tremendously was to outline who my ideal client was. What may come as a surprise to you is that it’s not necessarily the ones who pay me the most money – for me, a great client is someone who ―gets the marketing, wants to learn it, implements the ideas and reports back their successes. Of course, paying on time and appreciating what I do is on the list, but if they are implementing correctly, they ARE getting great results and, therefore, ARE going to pay on time and appreciate what I’m doing. They are also going to naturally be the ones who want to pay me more for more services, coaching and guidance.
So as this year draws to a close, I would urge you to sit in a quiet place and reflect back on what your big lessons were. I would also suggest you write about it to your clients as I have; it makes for good newsletter material. Not only will it help you clarify in your own mind, but documenting these lessons will be a good letter of advice to yourself later on when these problems inevitably arise again. I would also urge you to celebrate your mistakes. If you haven’t made some big ones this year, you haven’t tried hard enough. Anyone trying to accomplish great things is going to screw up and embarrass themselves—a lot—and you’ll find most people to be harsh critics, delighting in the opportunity to find fault and point out what you’ve done wrong rather than focusing on all the good you’ve accomplished. Don’t let them alter your opinion of yourself—I APPLAUD you.
So let’s raise a glass, toast our successes, learn from our failures, remember what we have to be grateful for, and renew our passion for achieving even more great things in 2010, together.