Business Ownership and Management

Success is a Mental Game

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This assertion is as true in business as in sports, individually and in teams. So, let’s break it down.

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When I watch my local football team, I occasionally see a shift in facial expressions from excitement to frustration – often right before the end of the first half. Sometimes, they recover during halftime and come out renewed and ready to win, but the “gloom and doom” expressions usually translate into suboptimal performance and mistakes. It is frustrating because you know they have the talent to win. 

The same thing happens in business – especially in Sales. Sometimes it occurs in the middle of a sales cycle, similar to the example above. Unfortunately, too many people allow a couple of data points to determine their future trajectory. Why is that?

Whether you own a company or manage a group of people, good leaders aim to optimize their workforce by finding the balance of factors that result in happy and loyal employees who are doing their best for themselves, their customers, and their company. There are a ton of motivational theories out there, such as Expectancy Theory, Reinforcement Theory, the Role of Instrumentality, Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation, and more. Since one size rarely fits all, the challenge becomes an effort of reward-focused personalization, which can be a lot of work.

People will often win or lose before they even start. Their negativity, self-doubt, and anticipation of failure become a self-fulfilling prophecyThis post focuses on self-motivation, attitude, mindset, and creating the habits that lead to better success.

Below are four simple questions that someone should ask themselves when they question their ability to succeed in a position, company, or industry. There are always many ways to point the finger of blame elsewhere, but the first step should be to look in the mirror.

  1. Do you believe that you can win where you are today? If not, why are you still there? Customers and prospects can sense insincerity, so if you don’t believe in yourself, you shouldn’t expect them to believe in you. Maybe the company is terrible, and everyone is failing. If that is true, then it is probably time to look elsewhere.
  2. What have you learned from past successes and failures, and how have you adapted based on those lessons learned?
  3. What are some early indicators of success or failure that you have identified? Are you adapting to the situation if you run into those indicators now? It could be that the best approach is to cut your losses on this attempt and move to the next sooner rather than later (i.e., qualify out quickly).
  4. What are you doing to improve your skills? It is funny how small, continuous improvement efforts lead to a greater sense of confidence. Greater confidence often translates to increased success.

I have found that consistently doing the right things is the best way to maximize my success. Start developing habits and routines that have led to winning in the past, but don’t expect them to work forever. Everything changes, and you should change too. Look for things that are working for others, try them out, and if they work, incorporate them into your routines.

Success truly is a mental game, and everyone can win. The person who continues to win over time is the person that does not get stuck in time. Be curious, get excited, and adapt. And once you get there, start helping others. It is nice having mentors, but also great to become one.

As the saying goes, The rising tide lifts all boats. Winning can be a team sport, but it begins with individual contributors having winning attitudes. Unfortunately, the same can be said for losing, so decide now what you want and go forward with energy and confidence.

“Acting Like a Startup”

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Over the years I have heard comments like, “We operate like a startup,” “We act like a startup,” and “We are an overnight success that was 10 years in the making.” These statements are often euphemisms for “We are small and not growing as quickly as we would like.”

There are numerous estimates of startups in their first few years. One of the best descriptions that I have found is from Failory, but Investopedia and LendingTree have similar but differing takes on the statistics and root causes. All three articles linked to are worth reading. The net result is that the outcome of failure is much greater than the outcome of success, especially over time. So, “acting like a startup” is not necessarily a good thing even when it is true. You want to act like a successful startup!

Understanding the data and various causes for success and failure are great inputs to business plans. I have been a principal with successful startups, both early employees and founders. Understanding the data and various causes for success and failure are significant inputs to business plans focused on long-term success. As a Founder, there are a few points that I believe to be key to success:

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  1. You have specific expertise that is in demand and would be valuable to an identifiable number of prospective customers. How would those customers use those skills, and how would they quantify the value? That understanding provides focus on what to sell and to whom.
  2. Have a detailed understanding of the market and key players to hone in on a niche to succeed.
  3. Understand your strengths and weaknesses, and then hire the most intelligent and most ambitious people whose strengths complement your strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Understand how you will reach those potential customers and the messaging you believe will compel them. Then, find a way to test those assumptions and refine them as necessary. Marketing and Lead Generation is very important.
  5. Have a plan for delivering on whatever you are selling before you get your first sale. A startup needs to develop its track record of success, beginning with its first sale.
  6. Cash flow is king. It is far too easy to run out of money while looking at a balance sheet that seems excellent because of receivables. Understand what matters and why it matters.
  7. Founders need to understand the administrative side of a business – especially the financial, legal (especially contract law), insurance, and tax side of things. Find experts to validate your approach and fill in knowledge gaps.
  8. Consistency leads to repeatable success. You standardize, optimize, and automate everything possible. Wasted time and effort becomes wasted opportunity.
  9. Finally, there needs to be sufficient cash on hand to fund the time that it takes to find and close your first deals, deliver and invoice the work, and then receive your first payments. That could easily be a 3-6 month period.

Those are the foundational items that are reasonably tangible. What is not as concrete but equally as important are:

  1. Having or developing the ability to spot trends and identify gaps that could become opportunities for your business.
  2. Having an agile mindset allows you to pivot your offerings or approach to refine your business model and hone in on that successful niche for your business.
  3. Foster a sense of innovation within your business. Always look for opportunities to deliver a better product or service, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your business, and create intellectual property (IP) that adds long-term value.
  4. Focus on being the best and building a brand that helps differentiate you from your competition.
  5. Become a Leader, Not a Manager. Create your vision of success, set expectations for each person and team, and help eliminate roadblocks to their success. Trust your team to help you grow, and replace members quickly if it becomes clear that they are not a good fit.

As Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Winning is hard, so focus on the journey. Making your customers’ lives easier and allowing your employees to be creative while doing something they are proud of will lead you to your destination. But, when things start going well, don’t sit back and convince yourself that you are successful. Instead, continue to focus on ways to improve and grow.

Success means different things to different people, but longevity, growth, profitability, and some form of contributing to a greater good should be dimensions of success for any vision.

Never Panic!

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Regardless of your position or role, panic is not a good problem-solving tool. It is especially bad when you are in charge of people, or when you are brought in for your expertise. Panic leads to a myopic view of the problem, and that hinders creativity.

The point in my career when this became readily apparent is when I was working for a small software company. We had a new product (Warehouse Management System) and were launching our third deployment. This one was more complicated than the rest because it was for a pharmaceutical company. In addition to requirements like refrigeration and lot control, there was a mix of FDA-controlled items requiring various forms of auditing and security as well as storage areas that were significantly smaller than previous installations. It was a challenge to be sure.

A pictures of three ice cubes, stacked, and melting slightly.

During this implementation, a critical component, “Location Search,” failed. There were about 10-12 people in the “war room” when my boss, the VP of Development, began to panic. He was an extremely talented person who normally did an excellent job, but his reaction began negatively affecting the others in the room. The mood quickly worsened.

Partly because I did not want to be stuck there all weekend, and mostly because I wanted this implementation to be a success, I jumped in and took over. I asked my boss to go out and get a bunch of pizzas. Next, I organized a short meeting to review what we knew, what was different from our prior tests and asked for speculation about the root cause of this problem. The team came up with two potential causes and one potential workaround. Everyone organized into three teams and we began attacking each item independently. 

We ended up identifying the root cause which led to an ideal fix a few days later, as well as a work-around that allowed us to finish the user acceptance testing and go live the following day. A change in mindset fostered the collaboration and problem-solving needed to move forward.

But, this isn’t just limited to groups. I was a consultant working at a large insurance company where I was on a team redesigning their Risk Management system. We were using new software and wanted to be sure that the proper environment variables were set during the Unix login process for this new system. I volunteered to create an external function that was executed as part of the login process. Trying to maintain clean code, I had an “exit” at the end of the function. It worked well during testing but once it was placed into production the function immediately logged people out as they were attempting to log into the system.

As you can imagine, I had a sinking feeling in my gut. How could I have missed this? This was a newer system deployed just for this risk management application so there were no other privileged users logged in at the time. Then, I remembered reading about a Unix “worm” that used FTP to infiltrate systems. The article stated that FTP bypassed the standard login process. This allowed me to FTP into the system and then delete the offending function. In less than 5 minutes everything was back to normal.

A related lesson learned was to make key people aware of what just happened, noting first that the problem had been resolved and that there was no lasting damage. Hiding mistakes kills careers. Then, we created a “Lessons Learned” log, with this as the first entry, to foster the idea of sharing mistakes as a way to avoid them in the future. Understanding that mistakes can happen to anyone turns out to be a good way to get people to plan better and then keep them from panicking when problems occur. 

Staying calm and focused on resolving the problem is a much better approach than worrying about blame and the implication of those actions. And, most people appreciate the honesty.

Interesting Article about ADHD and Creativity

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This “pocket” story is from Scientific American, originally published on March 5, 2019. The Creativity of ADHD.

Over the years I have found that some of the most interesting, creative, and effective CEOs have ADHD-like tendencies. The strange thing is that they may not even be aware that they have it. Hyperfocus can be incredibly effective when attached to a driven person.

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Below are links to a couple of posts that make these concepts and their benefits tangible:

Divergent Thinking

Conceptual Expansion

Just examples of why it is best to look beyond labels, lay your preconceived notions to the side, and explore the potential that each and every individual can contribute. The best managers and leaders tend to have this ability.

And if you want to take that a step further, let it guide you on finding the best approach to teaching, coaching, and motivating the people on your team. It may take a little extra effort but the results are amazing.

Are you Thinking About Starting a Business?

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The last post on Starting a Business was popular so I thought that I would share a very key lesson learned and then provide links to previous posts that will provide insights as you move forward with launching your own business. If you have any questions just post them as comments and I would be happy to reply.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a great deal of uncertainty and opportunity. For many, now is the ideal time to explore their dream of starting a business and jumping into the waters of entrepreneurship. That can be exciting, fun, stressful, financially rewarding, and financially challenging, all within the same short period of time. 

Being prepared for that roller coaster ride and having the ability and strength to continue pushing forward is important. Something to understand is that “Things don’t happen to you. They are the Direct Result of your own Actions and Inactions.” That may sound harsh, but here is a prime example:

When I was closing my consulting business down I trusted my Accountant and Payroll company to handle all of the required filings for Federal, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Colorado – something they stated they would handle and I accepted at face value. Both companies had done a great job before so why would I expect any less this time?

About nine months later I started receiving letters from Ohio and Colorado about filings due, so I forwarded them along to the Accountant and Payroll company. In my mind, this was “old business” and was being handled, plus I had moved on. It was probably just a timing error, something easy enough to explain away.

Skipping forward nearly three years, I had been threatened by the IRS and the Revenue Departments from both Ohio and Colorado. I started with a combined total of nearly $500K in assessments. Slowly that dropped to $50K, and then to $10K. I spent countless hours on the phone and writing letters trying to explain the misunderstanding. It wasn’t until I finally found a helpful person in each department that was willing to listen and told me specifically what needed to be done to resolve that situation. My final cost was around $1,000. I was relieved that this fiasco was finally over.

For the longest time, I blamed both the Accountant and Payroll Service for these problems. Ultimately I realized that it was my business and therefore my responsibility to understand the shutdown process – regardless of who did the actual work. I would have saved hundreds of hours of my time and several hundred dollars by simply gaining that understanding in the beginning.

I was not a victim of anything – this situation was the direct result of my own inaction. At the time it just did not seem very important, but my understanding of the situation and its importance was incorrect and I paid the price. Lesson learned. It was my business so it was still my responsibility to the very end.

Below are the other links. You don’t have to read them all at once, but it would be worth bookmarking them and reading one per day. Every new perspective, idea, and lesson learned could be the thing that helps you achieve your goal a day, week, or month sooner than expected. Every day and every dollar matters, so make the most of both!