Living in an Air Castle I

Living in an air-castle is about as profitable as owning a half-interest in a rainbow. It is no more nourishing than a dinner of twelve courses—eaten in a dream. Air-castles are built of golden moments of time, and their only value is in the raw material thus rendered valueless.

The atmosphere of air-castles is heavy and stupefying with the incense of vague hopes and phantom ideals. In the man lulls himself into dreaming inactivity with the songs of the mighty deeds he is going to do, the great influence he some day will have, the vast wealth that will be his, sometime, somehow, somewhere, in the rosy, sunlit days of the future. The architectural error about air-castles is that the owner builds them downward from their gilded turrets in the clouds, instead of upward from a solid, firm foundation of purpose and energy. This diet of mental lotus-leaves is a mental narcotic, not a stimulant.

Ambition, when wedded to tireless energy is a great thing and a good thing, but in itself it amounts to little. Man cannot raise himself to higher things by what he would like to accomplish but only by what he endeavors to accomplish. To be of value, ambition must ever be made manifest in zeal, in determination, in energy consecrated to an ideal. If it be thus reinforced, thus combined, the thin airy castle melts into nothingness, and the individual stands on a new strong foundation of solid rock, whereon, day by day and stone by stone, he can rear a mighty material structure of life-work to last through time and eternity. The air-castle ever represents the work of an architect without a builder; it means plans never put into execution. They tell us that man is the architect of his own fortunes. But if he be merely architect he will make only an air-castle of his life; he should be architect and builder too.” ~ William George Jordan

My company concluded its annual sales representative conference the other day and I was left with number of impressions, particularly in relation to those reps just starting their sales careers with us. For starters, I realized more clearly that working as an independent contractor and therefore as a small business owner provides a number of specific advantages. You are your own boss. You determine your level of success and the scope of your employment. You set your own hours. You have what many long for: independence.

On the other side of the coin, of course, you find that you are also responsible for your business 24/7. You cannot leave your business to another on nights and weekends. You tend to be much more invested in your work – physically, financially, emotionally – and the fate of your company, “You, Inc.,” rests squarely in you. You cannot hide behind a boss, a co-worker and you typically don’t have much of a cushion, especially early on, to absorb your inattention to the fundamentals. The privileges you gain, in short, come with a corresponding responsibility.

One of our senior reps noted that one of his most painful (and subsequently freeing) realizations was that there were no shortcuts to success. He recognized that he could not outsmart the system, skip over the fundamentals and build his business as Jordan described: “downward from [his] gilded turrets in the clouds.” Such an approach may give the appearance of working, particularly early in life if school comes easy, if there is natural talent in sports, music or the arts, but such endowments are rarely sufficient to fund the start-up of a new business, let alone the expansion of an existing one.

Our V.P. of Sales reminded the participants over and over again that you must do the work if you expect to succeed. You must pay attention to the fundamentals your entire career, in fact, there is no point at which the fundamentals lose their value in the present and influence over the future.

According to the science of tree physiology, there are four phases of tree growth: 1) newly germinated seedling, 2) young seedling/primary growth, 3) year-old seedling/secondary growth and 4) two year-old seedling/bark and wood development. An interesting website on the subject notes that:

As trees and other plants mature over time, new structures appear. Developments may be obvious, as when flowers or other reproductive structures first appear, or more subtle, like the maturing of the xylem or phloem.

BUT – this does not necessarily mean that earlier structures disappear. Instead, they often spread up and out with the branches or down further into the ground with the roots…The structures that appear when the tree is a tiny seedling are still present in a huge tree – at the very tips of the branches and roots.

So it is in business development, except that you, not the forces of nature beyond you, are the builder of your dreams. As you parlay the time and energy you might typically expend articulating what you would “like to accomplish” into specific action steps, where attention to the fundamentals is paid each and every day that you work, you begin the building process. You begin your journey of personal and professional development, an adventure that leads consistently onward, upward and outward.

The Right Door

You never know till you try to reach them how accessible men are; but you must approach each man by the right door.” ~ Henry Ward Beecher

Office dynamics are fascinating. Put a bunch of unrelated people together in a pressure cooker environment and you have a recipe for a complex blend of interpersonal relationships. The right mix is critical, as the office atmosphere is made or broken on the texture of those associations.

No matter how effective an organization is at marketing its products or services, the underlying office dynamics always manage to make their way to the surface. What is present at the center and at the top of any organization not only conditions the whole, but is also magnified as it moves outward into the market served by the company.

I have worked, studied and lived in a variety of settings, each of which had its own unique corporate culture. The standard and expectations were typically set by the man or woman at the top of the organization, be it a school, company or nation. Living in a socialist republic, for instance, was much different in outlook, function and feel than living in a capitalist republic. Likewise, working as a stockbroker in a large financial firm was night and day when compared to working as an entrepreneur in a small company in the spa industry.

One thing I never understood is how one person could lack empathy for another, even if the sole motivation was enlightened self-interest. I’ve seen peers who obviously would benefit more by working together dig their heels in over the most ridiculously frivolous issues, refusing to take even a moment to see the matter from the other perspective.

In my experience, the overwhelming majority of people are eventually accessible, if you can find, as Beecher put it so well, “the right door.” Some make it harder to find the right door than others, but most people I’ve met have a heart of gold. In most cases you have to deal with defense mechanisms and booby-traps on your way to the door, but no matter how circuitous or tortuous the path may be I have found that patiently investing whatever time it takes in my fellows – never giving up on their ability to reveal the highest and finest of which they are capable – is well worth the effort.

Some people loathe high expectations, yet they have a funny way of scampering out of the exits when the pressure comes on. I have never found it necessary to judge those with whom and for whom I have worked, as I have found that they reveal themselves when the heat is on. Those truly dedicated to the purpose of the consociation do what it takes to continue moving toward the goal, while those whose underlying interests and orientation focus in relation to some other purpose tend to go their own way. This works out in friendships, relationships, work associations and just about anywhere else human beings associate.

Others thrive when the stakes and expectations are high. These are my favorite kind of people. They maintain their composure and respect for others, even when they are uncomfortable. They understand the limitations of others and seek to complement their weaknesses, while fortifying them with inspiring appreciation and compassionate guidance. They admit, recognize and embrace opportunities for constant growth and development, as much in their ability to serve others as in their cultivation of new personal skills.

If you have advanced in life, it is likely because another found the door in you and knocked until you opened it and you granted them entry. In my case I had two unwavering and understanding parents, a fine and noteworthy extended family, a handful of superb teachers, several exceptional mentors and a willingness to make myself vulnerable to help and support. A good number of them were nuts, but unlike their botanical counterparts, even they were dehiscent and could therefore be encouraged to open up and reveal their inner greatness.

Sure, you can force your way through life, grabbing this and that along the way, but what comes as a result of such an approach is a hollow mockery of what could have been had you based your approach on respect, empathy and love for those with whom you are privileged to associate in your personal and professional life. There are no shortcuts, but take the right path and the joy, productivity and lust for life that ensues is well worth the wait…and the effort!

Let’s Raise Kids to be Entrepreneurs

I believe that supporting the entrepreneurial spirit is the key to a brighter future for the United States. If many of the most successful people in business these days – industry titans like Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Facebook whiz Mark Zuckerberg – dropped out of school to implement their dreams, wouldn’t we would be wise to ask ourselves how our schools could adapt to be more successful at identifying and fostering the development of the entrepreneurial spirit in our youth?

Many have argued that our educational system does not favor the entrepreneurially-inclined. Some are even convinced that entrepreneurship cannot be taught. I am inclined agree with the former and disagree with the latter. Entrepreneurship can be nurtured from a very young age and developed by parents armed with the necessary tools and through an intelligently-designed program of personalized scholastic training.

Entrepreneurs are people who recognize societal needs and who have the passion to provide innovative solutions. Entrepreneurs are people who inspire people to greatness, with the goal of making the world a better place. Entrepreneurs are generally speaking people who care deeply about people.

Rarely have I met a kid who did not have big dreams and great ideas. Perhaps you are or were one of them?

Cameron Herold was an entrepreneur from a very young age. Fortunately for Cameron, his parents found ways to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit in him, even as he was failing out of school. Cameron has a unique and common sense perspective on how to cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit in anyone of any age. If you are a parent looking for ways to give your children a leg up, an entrepreneur looking for inspiration or simply interested in hearing more about what makes entrepreneurs tick, I highly recommend that you take 20 minutes to listen to his talk, given at TEDxEdmonton this year:

The entrepreneurial spirit is in many ways the essence of the American dream. It is what allowed the United States to move so swiftly and so unstoppably from its beginning as a small and delicate, young nation to world hegemon. It is the creative spark that made our country so special and so attractive to others.

If you haven’t already, thank an entrepreneur today. They deserve your support and appreciation!

How to Nourish New Endeavors

Any successful entrepreneur can tell you that starting a new business is an exciting adventure. The adventure generally begins with a dream. Dreams turn into plans and plans then feather into reality. It sounds so mundane but the process is quite dramatic, especially when the rubber begins to hit the road.

One thing is certain: no matter how much you plan, the unexpected will rear its ugly head. Handling the unexpected is easy if you maintain your composure, remind yourself of the vision you had at the onset, and then look to adapt to the new reality. Human beings have a peculiar tendency to try to make their world adapt to a crystallized vision of how they would like things to be. There is no harm in having a lofty vision, but if you get too detailed as to how that vision should translate into reality before the time is right, you will quickly become frustrated and disappointed.

Let’s say your dream is to find an effective solution to the epidemic of chronic disease in the United States. Where would you start? Well, what are your starting points? What resources do you have at your disposal? What relationships do you have that might help you plan out and implement your vision? Never start with what you don’t have or what you wish you had. Always begin with what you do have at your disposal.

The fun part begins once you’ve articulated your vision. Now you have a chance to begin to envision a strategy. What, in general terms, is your plan of attack? Let’s say that your research shows that the reactive, invasive approach found in our present medical system doesn’t seem to be making a dent in the problem, while preventive strategies show promise. In light of your findings you decide on a strategy of prevention and wellness.

The options slowly narrow as you approach the more detailed level of planning, that of developing your tactical approach to implementing your strategy. In the fields of wellness and prevention, what modalities will you emphasize? Will you focus on a particular technique, such as exercise or nutritional counseling, or will you look to develop a product or even a new delivery system or even a new distribution channel for a product that would benefit many? What systems will you use, who will do what and when does it need to be done will all be determined int this phase, and typically not a second too soon!

As you begin to implement your plans you find that that capital you’ve devoted to the project starts to come in handy. The financial capital is important, yes, but more important is the capital represented by the quality and depth of the relationships you’ve forged with your associates in the venture. When the rubber hits the road there tends to be friction. Good relationships with others, built through the previous phases of development, are the oil that prevents the mechanism from overheating and potentially exploding.

While there is much more to say on this topic, I hope that these general starting points provide you with food for thought in the ventures you are presently or that you plan to undertake!

Dream big!

How to Weather an Economic Storm in Small Business

It’s been a challenging few years for anyone doing business just about anywhere in the world.  The Great Recession dealt a powerful blow to the pocketbooks of governments, businesses and individuals and it is hard to find anyone, anywhere, who has not experienced its impact.  

From a manager’s perspective, this crisis has provided many opportunities for growth and refinement, albeit set against a backdrop of one difficult decision after another.  If anything, we’ve gained a significant amount of productivity and efficiency in our nation as a result of the necessities to maintain solvency in a world of greatly restricted credit.  Businesses that tightened their focus on core operations had a better chance of surviving than those that went blithely along as if the rules of the game had not shifted.

In a crisis, everything appears to be of equal importance.  This is especially true for small businesses, who unfortunately faced the double whammy of banks tightening their lending and credit card companies reducing their limits, often for no apparent reason.  Given that more than half of small businesses relied on credit cards as a source of financing, owners across the country had to change the way business was financed…virtually overnight.

What have I learned as a manager during the worse economic environment since the Great Depression? 

First of all, human capital is a company’s greatest asset.  Put your people first.  The extremity of the situation forced many business owners to make difficult staffing decisions in order to deal with cash flow crises or worse, bankruptcy.  Businesses that did not react quickly enough, swiftly enough, made the headlines as one-by-one, large and small enterprises filed for bankruptcy across our great nation.  As a business manager, there is nothing worse than having to let personnel go.  For most small businesses owners, staff, family and friends are one and the same.  It is painful no matter how you cut it. 

Second, look for ways to add value to your client relationships.  Be creative.  The rules of the game in a new economy are different than they were.  Adapt or perish.  One of my National Sales Manager’s mantras is this: “How can we make it easier for our clients to do business with us?”  A great thought for anyone in any business.  Look for ways to add value that complement the “sweet spot” of your relationship with your clients, ways that build upon the foundation of your core business.  

Third, a focus on improving efficiency must be a priority in all levels of the organization.  Cutting costs wherever possible without damaging the present or future of your core business is essential.  Trim off any ancillary functions in the organization to preserve the core business.  Underperforming assets must be released, unless there is some great (future not nostalgic) reason for keeping them.              

Finally, stay positive.  Motivate.  Encourage.  Take heart yourself.  These downturns have happened before and they will happen again.  As interminable as they may seem, these periods in history come and go and have never proven historically to be permanent.  If anything, redirect the energy that you would waste on worry, fear, panic, blame or regret to more productive pursuits, such as creative thinking, rallying the troops and refining and simplifying work flow.  Continue to invest in growth, in research and development, wherever practicable. 

While small businesses are the engine of the U.S. economy, the biggest job creator in the country and a legacy of the American dream, they often don’t get the credit or attention they deserve.  Realizing this, the question to anyone involved in small business is this: “How can I most creatively handle the situation – exactly as it is configured?”