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Ideas, Attitudes & Action

Make new ideas and change a fixture of your company’s culture. Set small goals and be relentless in pursuing them. Don't forget that people make it all happen. Good people can achieve great things. Find them, keep them and let the misfits go somewhere else.

By Tim Markley, President, Markley Enterprise

Make new ideas and change a fixture of your company’s culture. Set small goals and be relentless in pursuing them. Don't forget that people make it all happen. Good people can achieve great things. Find them, keep them and let the misfits go somewhere else.

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  • The life of a small business owner is a turbulent and ever-changing sea of emotions and feelings. Just when you think you are ready to capitalize on a lesson you have learned (after great investment of time, money and pain), the rules change and you feel like you are back with that old friend of yours, "square-one."

    I have been there, and I know how absolutely frustrating it feels to always have the rules change just when you think you have success in your sights. But after some 34 years of trying to master the art of being a small business owner, I think some of the basics are finally starting to come into focus. Don't misunderstand. I still don't have it figured out completely, but I do think I'm a little closer to my vision of success than when I first came into the family business straight out of college.

    You'll notice that the title of this article is "Ideas, Attitudes & Action." It's a simple title that I think sums up the greatest challenges that any business owner faces every day of the week (and on the weekends too!). My philosophy is always keep things simple when I can, so the title is "simple" - just three words, but what these three words represent is monumentally complicated.

    Well, I'm sure you all can understand this one. It really means "what do you have that is new?" What are the new products, new processes, new people, and how do you apply this "new" to your everyday operations? Have you ever noticed the people you really admire - business owners who succeed and get some sizable money in the bank - never stopped "reinventing" their business?

    They don't keep beating the same drum until it falls apart. They may be in the same business for many years, but they keep doing it differently. Of course, the marketplace doesn't always continue to embrace the same products forever (check out the buggy whip makers on this one). But that buggy whip guy could have focused his capabilities toward a different product long before the buggy whip business went south. I'm convinced that his demise was brought about more by his inability to think "new" than by the changing marketplace.

    My experience has shown that all true entrepreneurs out there are idea people - but all true entrepreneurs are not successful. Why not? My observation over quite a few years tells me that the ones who really succeed at the highest levels are those who have discovered how to transmit their desire for creating the next "what's new" product or service to their management team.

    You must accept the fact that if you really get your team to actively and relentlessly seek change (another word that means new), there will be a significant failure rate. It takes guts to accept those failures, and to support the people who have failed. What you really want to do (as a true entrepreneur) is jump in and save the day. You could probably, in some cases, do that and come out ahead: But at the end of the day, you would not be ahead because in the process of being the hero you have incrementally diminished the willingness of your team to take a risk and keep trying until they get it right.

    You must face the music at some point if you want your business to continue to grow. You can't continue to have your name in the headlines everyday. Consider a different role, and the going gets easier and the success greater. Is it a different role? Yes. What I have found is that my most productive time is when I mentor other members of the management team, helping them to see and consider the "what-ifs" that I see, and that they need to concentrate on. Sometimes, the ideas are not mine; maybe they came up with a new concept, and what they really need from me is help negotiating their way through the myriad of challenges and choices.

    So I guess what I have learned is that "ideas" are key, and the "what's new" (the change that must constantly be endured) is essential to success. It gets uncomfortable but that's what it means to be at the front of the pack. It reminds me of a quote from Mario Andretti. Mario always amazed me because he could, and did, drive every form of race car, and he always looked like he was in total control. He was once asked if he ever felt out of control while driving. His response was, "I always feel out of control. If you feel in control, then you're not going fast enough." Keep that in mind when things feel crazy and out of control in your business.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    Funny thing about attitudes - everybody's got one! We all have experienced the feeling of being around people whom we enjoy. We like to be in their company. Somehow, some way, they make us feel good. It's too bad that we can't feel that way about everybody at work.

    While trying to run a business, we run up against attitudes all the time, and the experience is not always pleasant. But when attitudes mesh together, a beautiful thing can happen - progress! I am not talking about opinions. Don't think for a minute that I'm advocating it would be a good thing for you and your management team to go down the road in lock-step; quite the contrary. Opinions need to be diverse. That is where good decisions originate.

    The attitude I believe needs to be in adequate supply among your management team is one of agreement regarding the value of continuous and unrelenting change. With competition being so intense for everyone today, you just can't afford to have "status quo" seekers at the highest levels of your organization.

    These are the people that always react immediately with why every idea won't work. We call them citizens against virtually everything or CAVE people. They do this almost instinctively. It's their way of protecting the status quo and resisting change. This kind of attitude can poison your management people faster than you ever thought possible. CAVE people justify resistance to change by saying they are just being cautious, portraying themselves as protectors. The negative vibes they produce stifles the "what if" mentality in the rest of your staff, and sooner or later their influence permeates everyone else to some degree.

    OK, what should you do when a CAVE person is fully and completely identified? Well, you have really only two options: You can try to rehabilitate them or you can replace them. My experience shows by the time they become known as an official CAVE club member, it's usually too late to save them.

    However, my tactic has always been to try, but the results have not been good. The problem with a small organization is that eventually, if people stay long enough, they start to feel like family. We all know dealing with family is difficult, and when you get to this point - the replacement option - that's when I start looking like a CAVE person myself. I find a million reasons why I should just leave the person in place and not rock the boat, or maybe continue to try and get them to make a turnaround.

    We all fear the turmoil that happens when a long-term management professional exits. It makes things difficult for everybody. The good news is the difficult period is only temporary, and what follows is a breath of fresh air. Everybody gains when this happens, and it makes it clear what the organization is committed to and what kind of attitude is required for success. This is when leadership needs to be your guiding principal to do what's right, even when it's difficult.

    When you get good, change-accepting people together and good ideas are created, then it should be easy - right? Wrong. We have found implementation is always the biggest challenge. We all have so much to do, and so little time to get it done that we often fall back on the premise that we'll do "the new idea" later, when conditions are "right" (or when some "free time" becomes available and Pluto lines up with Mars).

    This is the territory of the passive-aggressive employees who always agree the idea is great. They bless it with affirmation of its value. But when you check back with them regarding their progress, they just haven't found the right time to give it a try. This can go on and on and on if you let it. This, again, is where leadership comes into play. Have you made it clear what you want and when you want it? Is there anything positive associated with trying it or negative associated with playing the waiting game?

    In case you haven't picked up on this yet, I'll be blunt and just ask you: Does your organization respect accountability? From my experience, lack of accountability is what really separates the winners from the rest of the pack. The downside to all of this is that if you have not made accountability a normal part of your company culture, you have some work to do. Sometimes, it gets a little hard to handle.

    When you start insisting on accountability, you will be characterized at first as a big meanie; a real bully. "How dare he actually expect me to do it, and do it now?" Get ready for it because, for a while, that will be the reaction you will get. But as you stick with accountability and make it your mantra, the troops will fall into line. They will actually like it, especially when they see the results, success and satisfaction of being on a productive, winning team.

    But beware; this is another area where continuing non-compliance is an indication of having the wrong employee (or employees). Any continual thumbing of the nose at accountability cannot be accepted if you want to have a truly high-performing and growth-oriented business. Give fair warning, and if you have some players who won't play by your rules, set them free and let them find an organization that will appreciate their stubborn nature.

    A couple of final caveats in regards to accountability: Make your feelings public in regards to your organization's direction, and make sure everyone knows that continual change is good and not something to be feared or ignored. Continuous improvement is not a fad or a flavor of the day. Let people know taking a risk is OK, and trying new things will increase your failure rate.

    Failures are desirable when you learn from them. It's like when Thomas Edison was asked how he endured the disappointment of failing 1,000 times while attempting to invent the light bulb. His response was, "I didn't see them as failures. I thought I discovered a thousand ways not to make a light bulb, which was necessary if I was to ever find the right way."

    One more important point to keep in mind: When you succeed, don't forget to celebrate the accomplishments. Make this a common occurrence. Recognize those who endured the disappointments and stayed with it until they got it right. Reward those whose behavior you are proud of because they are the people who make more change and more improvements possible. Therefore, they are the real difference-makers in your organization.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 4th Quarter 2007 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2007 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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