Running a Successful Business Starts with You

There’s no tool kit to teach you everything you need to know about owning a business. But there are some realities which, if you accept them from the beginning, will help set you up for success.

During a recent speaking engagement on growing autonomous enterprises, a business owner raised his hand and said, “My workforce is completely disengaged. With how hard it is to hire experienced people, I’ve had to hire a lot of “green” millennials. I’ve never seen a more disengaged bunch of people. How do I grow a business on that?”

To clarify, I asked, “Are you talking about your whole team?” He responded that it wasn’t all of his team members, but most.

As respectfully as possible, I said it was extremely unlikely that a whole group of people were all disengaged because of who they were (the dreaded “millennials” in this case).

In fact, the cause of the disengagement was most likely sitting in the room. There was just no way for me to say it respectfully then and there.

Owning It

The challenging truth is that it’s rarely “them” and almost always us. I’ll give you another example: During a meeting with the owner of a large engineering firm, he started talking about his employees, his voice raised and clipped.

“I don’t know what their problem is,” he said. “My door is always open and we have meetings every week. So why is it that the first time I hear this project is completely off the rails, I have to overhear it at the elevator? All they’ve given me for months is green lights. Now I hear we’re in trouble?”

He slumped back into his chair, honestly bewildered.

Yes, his office door was always open, and yes there were meetings and Gantt charts and methodologies. Every tool for success was in place. But still there was a problem. Why?

What comes to mind for me is something our parents used to teach us: when you point one finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing right back at you.

In my experience, most problems track back to business owners. This includes the failure to communicate, to take time to understand and to seek and receive feedback on how we contribute to failures in our environments. Add to that a shortage of empathy, a short fuse, micromanagement, lack of training in change management or even the most basic knowledge of human psychology.

Start with you

When I talk with owners, I often sense a desire for some secret — a hope that growing a business is a mechanical process: just push the right buttons and watch the magic happen.

But there are no secret buttons. It isn’t our customers or our employees. The stuff that defines the energy, direction, pulse, purpose, makeup and character
of a business is the product of a very small number of people. Usually, that number is one — the owner.

An organization is the product of its leadership. If you are the owner, it’s your makeup and your character. Personal qualities that impact the success of your organization include:

> an appetite for, or aversion to, risk

> an ability to communicate rather than just talk

> an ability to be fluid

> a willingness to learn

> a willingness to trust

> an ability to treat failures as opportunities to learn.

Yes, it is theoretically possible your business could be successful even if you have none of these qualities. But in most cases, even if you follow a business recipe to the letter, success or failure is the consequence of who you are.

The Character of Success

There is no single type of person guaranteed to be successful in business. But there are kinds of people who will struggle, and there are certain traits that can contribute to success. Here are four of those traits.                      

The ability to let go

Your first hire is the first moment of growing up as a business owner. Right there, you cut the herd. This is where you either grow up and learn to let go, or set a pattern of maintaining an infantile death grip driven by a lack of trust.

If you want to journey beyond your own limitations, to create a legacy, you have to trust other human beings. You have to let go of being the best baker or electrician or massage therapist. If you can’t do that, you’ll never become the owner of a successful bakery, electrical firm or health clinic.

Being OK with not being the smartest person in the room.

Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos talks about the importance of being a “day-one company,” a business that starts each day assuming it has nothing and knows nothing. So get ready to become a “day-one entrepreneur” who is ready to start learning all over again, every day.

Creating a successful independent enterprise means walking away from the comfortable mastery that got you here as coder or engineer or cook; away from the ego and comfort of being the best in the field, of rarely failing. Instead, you have to be OK with waking up in a world where you may fail every morning — and often do.

In this world, what you mastered yesterday is never enough — you have to master something new today and every day.

If you can’t accept that humility, you’ll be trapped in a world where the work may get done perfectly, but it will always be done by you. The number of excellent employees in your enterprise will always be exactly one.

The confidence to act in darkness

Being an entrepreneur requires being comfortable with acting in partial ignorance. Few things require more courage (and even a hint of madness) than acting on incomplete information when a lot is at stake. People do it in love, and we must do it in business. It doesn’t matter that you don’t have all the facts. You never will. You have to act anyway.

As long as you stay in research mode, you may feel safe. But you risk nothing, and you create nothing.

The courage to deal with what is

Successful business owners are neither pessimists nor optimists. They are realists. They don’t believe the world owes them anything. They don’t shake their fists at the sky when it rains. They accept the reality of what is.

They don’t blame others or external forces for failures. The best don’t even blame themselves, because it isn’t about blame. It is about the lessons that collisions with reality can teach.

Successful entrepreneurs sense in their bones the connection between their behaviour — their blood, sweat and tears — and the results. While that can be motivating, the world of the business owner also has a kind of uncivilized brutality to it. There is no safety net if you fall. There is a deep sense the pavement is just a few inches away, and it is very hard.

Focus on What Is

Most people get hung up on what should be. Successful entrepreneurs understand that it shouldn’t be anything: it just is what it is. Our job is to transform reality, whatever that reality is, into opportunity. That means adjusting your expectations to what’s actually going on, and create value from — and for — that reality.

So what about the engineering firm owner and the false green lights? The rough truth is that he wasn’t ready to accept that the failure was of his own creation. He couldn’t accept his position of power over others. (Owners are often blind to the psychological realities of their ability to end people’s careers.) Nor could he see that his brusque “I just tell it like it is” manner, coupled with the confidence that he was always right, was responsible for the environment where it was unsafe to tell the boss the truth.

It wasn’t him. It was them.

Clemens Rettich is a business consultant with Grant Thornton LLP. He has an MBA from Royal Roads University and has spent 25 years practising the art of management.