THE RELUCTANT LEADER
Jake is the owner of a cleaning and restoration business that has known some success and has a lot going for it.
His company’s been in business long enough, and they’ve done nice enough work over the years, to enjoy a good reputation and a loyal customer following. His business is located in a market area that has a large enough population to support future growth, and he has a dedicated group of employees working for him.
Jake has always been open to finding new ways to grow his company. He tries the newest marketing strategies he reads about, invests in the latest technology and makes sure his people are well-trained.
In spite of all this, his company hasn’t grown measurably for the last couple years. Some of his people are getting concerned that there might not be a rewarding future for them at the company if things don’t change.
If Jake’s company sounds like yours, any similarity is purely coincidental. However, I’ve known a lot of business owners like Jake in the years I’ve been consulting, and the underlying reasons why they struggle to grow their companies rarely have to do with market conditions or the economy.
There have always been similarities with the Jakes I’ve known: They told anyone who would listen about their grand dreams for the business, the number of trucks they wanted to have, the dominant market position they would enjoy and all the money they would make. But just as with the Jake in this story, many of them fell far short of their dreams — and certainly short of their potentials.
After watching how companies with far less going for them can experience profitable growth — even when circumstances are stacked against them — while others struggle to get beyond what a handful of employees can produce by themselves, it becomes clear that market size, economic conditions and other outside influences play only minor roles in determining a company’s ultimate success.
In my experience, the leading contributors to a company’s rate of growth and success lie within the mind of the business owner.
As you might imagine, these contributors are almost infinite in their variety, and none are either good or bad or right or wrong. They are simply contributing factors to the growth and eventual size to which an entrepreneur grows his company.
At the same time, most of them fall into six broad categories: “I’m comfortable where I am,” “I’m afraid of failing,” “I’m afraid of succeeding,” “I don’t think I’m deserving,” “I don’t think I’m capable,” and “I don’t know how.”
It’s not uncommon to have more than one of these types of contributors at play at the same time. Sometimes they’ll even develop dependent relationships on each other, such as when someone is feeling comfortable with conditions as they exist, they can be driven by their fear of failing if they try new things. Or they don’t feel they’re capable of growing the company because they don’t know how to get to the next level.
Let’s investigate each of these categories and explore how they can affect the growth of a company.
I’m comfortable where I am
Not all businesses are started with the intention of becoming the next Microsoft, Zappos or Amazon. People start them for lots of different reasons.
Sometimes it’s because we just want a different job than the one we currently have. For some heavily involved in their faiths, they create businesses that provide them with the freedom to live out their values or allow time for volunteer or missionary work. Sometimes family priorities, recreation or athletic pursuits are the driving force in our lives, and the businesses we create are intended to support these priorities.
Occasionally, we start companies because we make lousy employees, and the best way to stay employed is to create our own jobs, eliminating the possibility of being written up or fired by our bosses. In fact, according to research conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 78 percent of all businesses registered in the U.S. have no employees other than the owner. That’s a lot of solo operators!
Even for those companies that do have employees, only about 25 percent will scale above $1,000,000 in annual sales. For many, that’s just fine with them.
I’m not one who subscribes to the Wall Street myth that, if you don’t grow your business, you die. While that might be a popular thing to say, and it might hold merit with large, publicly held, multinational corporations, I simply don’t think it’s accurate for most small businesses.
Jay Goltz, owner of Artists’ Frame Service (a very successful art framing company in Chicago), refers to himself as “a recovering entrepreneuraholic.”
In the book Small Giants he says, “Successful entrepreneurs have a demon they have to get rid of.” While that demon might be unique to each person, many of us are constantly questioning ourselves about missing opportunities or leaving money on the table. Goltz advises us to ask ourselves, “How do we keep the success bug from turning into the success disease?”
This is a tough lesson for some entrepreneurs to learn. For too many, it takes driving themselves to sleepless nights, behavioral outbursts and broken marriages before they do.
The lucky ones avoid this misery by aligning what’s truly important to them with their means for achieving it and by being able to sort through all the chatter heard in the business press about overnight success stories or bigger always being better. Sometimes, going solo or surrounding oneself with just a handful of committed, trusted employees allows an owner time to coach his kids’ sports teams, do volunteer work or enjoy other non-business activities.
Other times, what might look like a stalled business is really just a deliberate strategy on the part of the owner to enjoy that stage of his and his family’s lives. Kids grow up and move on. Sometimes, an owner finds himself with more time and emotional capacity to invest back into the business after they do.
Just because an entrepreneur doesn’t grow his company to one of the biggest in his area doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s doing. In many cases, he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s comfortable enough where he is to sleep pretty well at night.
I’m afraid to fail
This contributor to a company’s rate of growth and success is pretty obvious. Failure is not a foreign concept to most entrepreneurs. In spite of how good we may think we are, many of us have failed our way to where we are today — what Jon Maxwell refers to as “Failing Forward.”
We started our businesses being fully aware that the odds of succeeding beyond the first five years were overwhelming stacked against us. Yet, we started them anyway. If we were lucky enough to survive the start-up years, we continued to claw our way forward: Working long hours, sacrificing personal time and placing wild bets on the biggest craps table of all — business.
When our businesses reach a point where they can provide us with a reasonable level of financial security and physical comfort, it’s only natural that we are reluctant to gamble what we already have for the possibility of having something better in the future.
We do the mental math and determine the rewards aren’t worth the risk of failing and losing it all. This becomes an even bigger factor as we age, and we realize the time we have to recover our losses is greatly decreased.
This is reasonable caution, which is not the same as fear of failure. Reasonable caution is based on data or logic in which we evaluate current conditions and weigh facts to help predict outcomes. Fear of failure is based primarily on emotion, where conjuring up memories of past failures keeps us from moving forward.
We sometimes fear failing because we don’t want to be viewed as losers. Many people spend their lives carefully building on small successes, and they fear that if they fail it might change what people think of them.
Consequently, they avoid taking risks that might result in failure, as some confuse failing with being a loser. Frequently, these fears are based on painful experiences from our past. Experiences we’re not eager to live again. Of course, those same risks could also result in success.
Fear didn’t stop Walt Disney when he was fired by a newspaper because he “lacked imagination.” Or Jerry Seinfeld, who was booed off the stage the first time he tried his hand at stand-up comedy. Or Akio Morita, who failed at making rice cookers but has done pretty well for himself by founding Sony. Clearly, there’s a world of difference between failing at something and being a loser.
This much we all know: Business is all about change and risk. With all change comes risk and the chance of failure — big and small. Sometimes we risk financial loss. Sometimes it’s social prestige. Sometimes it’s just plain old embarrassment.
Owners who fail to embrace change in their businesses, by default, condemn those businesses to irrelevance. In many ways, their fear of failing causes them to live out their own self-fulfilling prophesies.
We’d do well if we asked ourselves more frequently, “What would I do differently if I knew I couldn’t fail?”
I’m afraid of success
Most of us are familiar with failure. We know what failure looks and feels like. Some of us even have advanced degrees in it! But many owners are unfamiliar with the face of success, and unfamiliarity can make us fearful of what success might bring.
The whole concept of fearing success might sound strange to some, but I’ve seen this fear debilitate owners far more than the fear of failing. The fear of success is much more subtle, so it can be harder to identify than the fear of failure.
We may have the fear of leaving behind those we’ve come to know and love if we grow professionally or climb the socioeconomic ladder faster than they do. This can include not just falling out of touch with them physically (moving to a different neighborhood, company, etc.), but also losing their approval.
Success could label us one of “them” — people who’ve become “high and mighty” or “too big for their breeches.”
Some fear that if they become successful they’ll lose their sense of self: Their personal values, direction and self-image. We spend our entire lives formulating our self-image. In business, it manifests itself in the industries in which we choose to work, in our leadership abilities and in our sense of fairness, discipline and purpose.
So it follows that some business owners fear that achieving success might tempt them into becoming someone they’re really not. A rudimentary scan of the professional sports or entertainment landscape provides abundant examples of this happening to other people, so perhaps this fear has some merit.
If the picture of success we describe with our words exceeds the picture of ourselves that we’ve painted in our minds, we’ll engage in whatever activities are needed to bring them into alignment. Sometimes this means that we’ll kick things in the rear end to catch up with our self image, and sometimes it means that we’ll pull back on the reins until they come back into alignment. Either way, when our company’s success is out of alignment with the image we’ve painted of ourselves, something has to give.
Another form of fearing success is when we fear the unknown world that might be out there if we succeed.
This is not the same as choosing not to grow because we’re aware of the increased challenges and deliberately choosing not to go there. This has to do with not knowing what threatening things might be out there and being paralyzed by this fear.
This is similar to the child who quickly jumps into his bed at night and pulls the covers up over his head because he’s afraid of the bogeyman who might be lurking in his closet or under his bed. Covering himself with his blankets is similar to a business owner retreating to the familiar and comfortable confines of his smaller business.
A good question to ask ourselves is, when we reach the end of our working career, what things will we feel we’ve left undone? Rarely will the answer be completing the next job or closing the next sale. Instead, it will probably involve doing the things we could have done and being the person we could have been.
I don’t think I’m deserving or capable
The next two factors that may affect the size to which an entrepreneur grows his business are addressed in The Fifth Discipline, a groundbreaking book by author and noted business authority Peter Senge.
In his book, Senge writes about two contradictory beliefs most people hold that limit what we feel we’re able to create in our lives, and by extension, our businesses. These center around the basic belief that we are powerless to achieve the things we say we want to achieve and our feelings of unworthiness to deserve what we say we want.
Together, Senge refers to these as “StructuralConflict.” Here’s how they play out with some owners:
I don’t feel I’m capable of achieving greater success: The underlying belief that we don’t possess the talent or the ability to learn what we need to know in order to grow our company.
I don’t feel I deserve greater success: The deeply held belief that we don’t deserve the things we say we want.
Either of these two beliefs, frequently held deep within the recesses of our subconscious, can hold us back from achieving the things we say we want. It’s like trying to climb a mountain with two 50-pound dumbbells tied to your back; they’re just extra weight on an already difficult journey. The closer you get to your goals at the top of the mountain, the steeper and more slippery the slope can feel under the weight of those beliefs.
The higher we climb to reach our goals, the harder it becomes to actually achieve them and the harder we have to work to make progress.
After a while, several things tend to happen. As we approach our goals, it’s common to start to lose traction, and our progress slows down. Unless we have a profound reason for wanting to achieve our goals, it’s easy to start sliding down the slope and start rationalizing our goals away.
We convince ourselves the goals weren’t worthy in the first place or they weren’t important enough to keep working toward. This is where entrepreneurs frequently become exhausted with the struggle and either give up (“It wasn’t important in the first place”) or start searching for magic answers to their growth dilemma: Opening additional offices, service-line diversification, joining industry networks, etc.
None of these strategies is wrong in and of itself. But none of them address the underlying structural conflict.
The fact that we’re all aging is another issue that comes into play. As we age, it can become more difficult to maintain our drive, or at least our stamina, in our quest to reach our goals. Once again, without a convincing reason to continue the push, the dumbbells will ultimately win out.
Before we can “commit to the truth,” as Senge puts it, we must recognize that we have these beliefs and explore both their sources and the impact they have on our behavior in pursuit of our goals.
Remedying this is, by no means, easy or quick. It is difficult and can be fraught with emotion, as becoming more self-aware usually is. But, with our new understanding, we can then choose strategies to address these beliefs and move our businesses forward.
I don’t know how
If the underlying cause for the lack of growth in our businesses is a lack of knowledge, then we just hit the jackpot. It’s the easiest factor to address if we are willing learners. This cause can be broken into several subcategories:
I know what I don’t know. Being consciously aware that we lack the knowledge or skills required to grow our companies is a huge admission for a business owner.
I don’t know what I don’t know. This category could continue “…and I’m not sure I’d like it if I did know.” As I’ve written on several occasions in the past, owners of growing companies are constantly navigating territory that is completely unfamiliar to them. This is why a common trait of successful business owners is the ability to connect the dots that led to success in the past with what will replicate it in the future.
I don’t recognize my own deficiencies. We all bring personal behaviors, developed over our lifetime, into managing our businesses. While some of these behaviors might have been strengths in the early stages of our companies, they can easily become weaknesses as our companies grow.
For example, an “any job, anytime, anywhere” philosophy at the outset can later degenerate into a blurred vision. And a “hands-on” mentality in the beginning can lead to an over-controlling management style later. These behaviors may have given us the adrenaline needed to launch our companies, but they now may be preventing us from attracting and keeping the talented people we need to grow them.
The good news is that we have absolute control over all of these categories. It’s completely up to us. As long as we’re willing to learn new things and grow professionally, our businesses will grow right along with us.
As I mentioned at the outset, the underlying factors that influence the growth of companies, causing some to grow and some to not, include a lot of elements. External factors such as local market conditions and national economic trends may temporarily affect a company’s ability to grow, but they rarely have long-term effects. Internal factors such as sales processes and financial controls will certainly have an effect, but these are technical issues that can be corrected or improved.
The true underlying root causes can usually be found deep within the recesses of the owner’s mind. When a business owner is serious about growing his business, he’ll find a way to grow it. Or he’ll leave it and find another that can deliver the dream he believes in.
Running a large business doesn’t necessarily make us any more successful than running a small business. Individual success is measured in much broader terms than simply by gross sales or net worth. The definition is as varied as the people measuring it.
As it is with many things in business and in life, there really is no good or bad measure. It’s simply what exists, how we feel about it and whether we are compelled to change it.
For most business owners, the real measure of success is if the things we accomplish in our businesses are in alignment with the things we believe about ourselves.
Chuck Violand is the founder and principal of Violand Management Associates (VMA), the largest consulting company in the restoration and cleaning industries. Violand is a recognized industry leader for advising entrepreneurs on the unique challenges they face both personally and professionally. Through VMA, he works with business owners and companies to develop their people and their profits. Violand also serves on the board of directors for the Restoration Industry Association (RIA). To reach him, visit violand.com or call (800)360-3513.
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February 21, 2023