As I think back on my professional career and ask myself “what have you done all that time?” I come to the conclusion that the best answer to that question is: I have been learning most of the time.
Yes, I have earned a pay-check most every day. And yes, I have helped some companies along in achieving their goals and earning a return on investment, but I have never stayed long in a position where I was not learning something new or where I did not have an opportunity to hone my existing skills.
My career has been a life-long search for a position of leadership where I could truly make a difference. Thankfully, I am in such position now and have been for a while, but it would not have happened if I had not spent an inordinate amount of time learning on the job. That is not to say that I’m done learning now. I certainly embrace the notion that one is never too old to learn. But, after what amounts to nearly a lifetime of learning, I am finally in a position to give back from that treasure trove of acquired insight and it feels good. In this realm giving is truly better than receiving.
The best advice I can give people who are still in the starting blocks of the race to success is to first find out what it is that they like to do and then work very hard at getting very good at doing just that. That means learning on the job as a matter of continuing education. Whether it is working with your hands, with your head or with your heart, nobody enters a profession and is at the peak of his potential right away. For most of us it takes a while before we end up in a place where we can make our mark. The son of a good friend of mine is a lawyer who graduated at the top of his class, very intelligent, very capable and very motivated, but it will be years of hard work and learning before he is of top value to his clients.
For people who aspire to a leadership role in business there is a lot to learn. If they are trained in a particular discipline, say engineering, they will have to develop familiarity with management, sales, marketing, finance and administration. No person will ever succeed in business without first developing the capability and desire to manage people. Not in the sense of directing, much less manipulating people, but in the sense of inspiring and motivating them to all march in the same direction and help their company reach its strategic objectives.
The art of management is to get all people in an organization to contribute at their peak performance all the time, not because they are told to do so, but because they want to do so. That art is not easily mastered. It takes, in the first place an awareness that leadership is expected and then the willingness to accept the leadership role and responsibility. Leadership is most quickly assumed and accepted under fire. That is why the military is good at fretting out leadership potential at every level of the military organization.
In business we learn the most by working with the best in the business. And that can be on our side of the table or on the opposite side. I have learned a tremendous amount by having to spar with champions in their field who did not necessarily have my best interest in mind. I have also learned significantly from the worst in the business in that these confrontations made up my mind to never be like them.
Great leaders are confident and competent and surround themselves with people of the same or higher caliber. Weak leaders are no leaders at all. They surround themselves with yes men they can push around.
Almost all of my career in business was spent in the employ of others. For people who venture out on their own the learning process is mostly by trial and error. This is a much more difficult route with a much higher risk level. But the people who come through are learning quickly. It is like baptism by fire. Not really the recommended course if you can avoid it. For that reason it is generally recommended that a next generation coming up in a family business cuts its teeth first outside the family business before taking over the reins.
What can I do with my learnings? They are so many and so diverse that the best way to deal with them is to apply them in my consulting business, with clients one on one, depending on what they need consult for. I could write a book about them and, in fact, I am in the process of doing just that. And I can share them with as wide an audience as I can reach by summarizing them in a blog column like this. Here are my learnings of a lifetime directed to small business owners in no particular order of importance:
- Don't burn any bridges
- Control the things you can control and don't waste any time worrying about things you can't control, including your competition
- Know what you're in the business for (your Mission) and make sure everyone around you knows it as well
- Make sure your organization runs on all cylinders
- Know who your stakeholders are and never deceive them
- You can't save your way to prosperity; entrepreneurship is all about putting capital at risk
- Know at all times if, when and where you are making money (or not)
- Judge people by what they bring to the table not by the hours they spend on the job
- There is always more than one way to skin the cat
- When in doubt say no before you say yes; you can always reverse a decision but you can't renege on a promise
- Simplify your life and your business; cut through the clutter and get rid of distractions