Monday, January 13, 2014


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

Friday, January 10, 2014


If we could it do all over again, would we do it the same way? That is a question we frequently ask ourselves as we get older and -hopefully- wiser. And almost always the answer is no! With the benefit of hindsight, we would have done a lot of things differently. But you can’t go back and undo all the things you have done; the things that now don’t look so smart. Nor should we be too harsh on ourselves: circumstances, information, technologies, norms and our own insights have all changed and it is not really very meaningful to judge our actions of the past with our current metrics.

Those thoughts go through my mind as I drive around town, through North Ridgeville, North Olmsted, Westlake, Rocky River, and Lakewood and back through Brooklyn, Middleburg Heights, Parma, Parma Heights, Brook Park, Berea and Olmsted Falls. What I’m thinking about, as I drive from one little community to the next, is all the duplication of effort and resources comprised in all these small communities, packed so closely together.

Cuyahoga County alone has 59 municipalities and the State of Ohio a grand total of 3,703 units of government. We are a nation of settlers and homesteaders and we revere self-government or –rather – we don’t trust anybody but ourselves to govern our affairs. But we also detest paying taxes and we constantly reject school levies and other tax impositions at the ballot box. Seemingly we are unable to make the connection between the type of self-government we want and the cost thereof.

I shudder to think about all the police departments and fire departments that need to be staffed and equipped by all these communities, all the town halls and city councils that need to be funded with tax payers’ money. All the public works departments these communities need to support. All the different zoning boards with inevitably diverging views of what the local landscape should look like. Do we get our money’s worth?

Most of us mistrust government and would much rather do with less than more government, but here we tolerate a layered cake of Federal, State, County and Municipal government each with their own costly bureaucracies. How well equipped are all these public workers to service us at modern day standards and how much does it cost us? We pay for these public workers with our hard earned money not only for as long as they are working for us, but also in retirement, mostly with defined benefit pension plans that have long been abandoned by the private world.

If we could do it all over again, for sure we would not come out with the current governance model.
We would create larger communities with a good balance between residential and commercial development creating a healthy sustainable tax base. We would create communities delineated by natural geographic boundaries that allow for each community to have its own distinct character. We would separate governance from operations so that we can set the rules locally but provide services in a larger context in combination with neighboring communities.

Following this concept we would retain the benefits of local self-government while controlling the cost of the services that communities need to provide by applying economies of scale. With fewer, larger and stronger communities we can afford to attract the best talent available to run the business of government both politically and operationally. And we can afford to build in NE Ohio a world class infrastructure to support our competitive position in the State, in the Nation and in the World.

We need the courage to let go of what we have accumulated over time and give ourselves a fresh start. We need Regionalism instead of Localism.

If only we could do it all over again! Well, can’t we?