As much as everyone dislikes growing old, there are some advantages to advanced age for people who go through life with their eyes wide open and who are determined to learn from their experiences. David Brooks, of the Brookings Institute, who’s normally perceptive articles I like to read, pointed this out when he wrote in an April 1, 2014 column in the New York Times: “Some virtues only ripen over time: other-centeredness, having a sense for how events will flow, being able to discern what’s right in the absence of external affirmation. These virtues usually come with experience, after a person has taken time off to raise children, been fired or learned to cope with having a cruel boss.”
I can identify with all of that, except taking time off. In my final address to the annual meeting of the company (PrimeraTurf, Inc.) from which I retired as CEO, I offered my audience the following rules for success in business (all of which I had filtered out after a lifetime in business at both sides of the Atlantic):
· 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 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.
I like to zoom in on the skinning of the cat. What I mean with that is that I have found that there is almost always more than one way out of a predicament, more than one way to build and grow a business and more than one way to lead a purposeful life. That may sound self-evident, but in reality I have found that many people with a leadership position in business are so convinced that they are on the right track and that they have all the right answers that they are impervious to outside counsel and blind to the quickly changing external environment that should cause them to pause from time to time and reconsider their options and alternatives.
Awareness that there is always more than one way to skin the cat is an aspect of a positive corporate culture. Without it, there is not much room for meaningful input from team members, other stakeholders or outside counsel. If the message is: “I know what I’m doing and you just do what I tell you”; or, “I know what you’re saying, but this is the way we do business”, you will quickly find yourself surrounded by “yes-men” and discourage your customers, your suppliers and other stakeholders to engage with you in an effort to build a strong and durable supply chain.
The mindset that comes with or from this awareness causes a business leader to always think in terms of options and alternatives, which, in turn, invites input and scrutiny from third parties who may be affected by the ultimate decision about how to skin the cat. No single person ever has all the right answers. And the prospects for a thriving and sustainable business are slim if the person in charge claims to already know how to skin the cat before he or she has heard from stakeholders in the decision and solicited the presentation of alternative courses of action.
The rule that there is always more than one way… also applies to the business model you chose. Don’t be misled by the fact that in a certain field of business or industry things are typically done in a certain way. A contrarian approach can pay off big dividends, particularly when the old business model is getting a little old and tired. Customers may be ready for an innovative approach. Can you imagine how successful a company could be if it finds a way to break through the awful practice of bundling cable communication services? I can’t wait to see it happen now that the proposed merger between Comcast and Time-Warner is putting the screws on. It is tough to go against the grain, as Tesla is finding out in its quest for a new distribution model for its cars. But for the truly innovative entrepreneurs who find a way to break the mold, the pay-out is likely to be huge.
The bottom line is that the cat does not want to be skinned at all, but if it has to be done, then there is always more than one way to do it and do it with the desired outcome in mind.