Our firm recently celebrated 35 years in business. One of my best buds from college called me up and said, “Ah, so this get-rich-quick scheme actually worked.” We laughed a lot remembering my years of working off a card table, the meager revenues and the shoe string budgets, the financial crashes in the 80s, 90s, and also 2000, and – darn – again in 2008, just when we thought it was going to be ok.
A lot of people have asked what motivated me to stay in business. It is a great question. While there is some security running your own business, there is a lot more risk and uncertainty. An easier way to success is finding a role that plays to your strengths in a great company. But, personally, I had no choice. I had a burning desire to start a business.
To build some credibility right out of college, I wrote a lifestyle column, which was syndicated in all of two newspapers. They paid me $15 per column. To keep myself motivated, informed, and sane, I joined whatever business organizations would take me. But like Woody Allen, I was suspicious of membership in anyclub that would want me as a member. Yet it forced me to leave my home office and build my Rolodex.
I did set realistic 3 and 6 month goals. That’s how I was able to write my first book in 1983 – The Professional Image published by Putnam Publishing. I also told so many people that I was writing a book, that I embarrassed myself into writing it. Lucky for me, I found a great New York book agent who is still my agent today. We had a rocky start because I showed up one day late for our appointment but 30+ years later, all is forgiven.
Today, our firm’s mission is to develop leaders who become the best of who they are through honest feedback, self-awareness, and good judgment. Our goal is also to open their world to new ideas and challenge some of their long-held assumptions.
I owe so much to my remarkable team and to the many terrific clients we have worked with since 1980. Here are 8 nuggets that I have learned from them, other friends and family, and the astonishing opportunity of running a business for 35 years.
1. Learn to manage your professional image and presence and sometimes over-compensate. Get up a little earlier to put yourself together physically and emotionally. Dress well; Smell good; Stay calm; Engage others. First impressions matter. Offer the very best of you, every single day.
2. Know your customers and what’s important to their businesses. Spend time together, listen carefully to what is and is not being said. Don’t judge. Walk in their shoes for a while. The closer we are in relationship to their issues, the better the solutions. When you know how to solve a problem or enhance their business or their life – then offer them the best product or service that you and your team possibly can. Over deliver every time, even if it is just a little more.
3. A regular routine of giving back in time, talent or treasure enriches us in ways that money and possessions can’t. Volunteering should not be some heroic thing we do once or twice a year – it can be one of the regular choices we make, the same as going out to dinner, to a movie, or turning on the TV to watch a game. Today, service to others shows up in so many ways – walking a neighbor’s dog, teaching a friend’s child to cook or play a sport. It’s helping someone update their resume and opening some doors for them. It’s also raising money for something near to your heart, or joining and contributing to a non-profit board. If a cause matters to you, you will get back much more than you give.
4. An employer is not mightier than the employee or anyone else. Treat everyone with respect and value – clients, vendors, your team, your competitors, and the people who serve you lunch.
5. Being successful in business is not magic. I think it comes down to P&G…Persistence and Gratitude. Persistence overcomes bad bosses, self-doubt, terrible market conditions and sheer fear. It pushes us to do better and learn more. Persistence creates a kind of focus and determination that can break through brick walls.
Balance it with Gratitude, the recognition that what came your way was intended to come your way, and what didn’t, well be glad it didn’t because it wasn’t supposed to. Say thank you often in notes, emails, cards, small gifts, and in person.
6. If you start a new job, consider how you can set the stage for your success and that of others. One of our clients started her first day on the job 3 years ago by personally cooking hamburgers and hot dogs outside in subzero temperatures on a gigantic grill for about 80 of her employees. People in her company still talk about it, and it’s become company lore.
7. At the end of a career, people start to worry about their legacy. But legacy is built from day one. I see a lot of Millennials who have already figured that out, and theirs is a great future. Legacy is simply the everyday leadership practices that leave everything and everyone just a little better. It is being generous with praise and stingy with criticism. It is getting others to buy into a better vision of the future.
8. And a final piece of advice – don’t retire. Whether you work for money or for kicks, stay surrounded by smart people, remain engaged with life, have a purpose beyond yourself and a reason to get up in the morning.