The Alternative Board likes to know what entrepreneurs and small business owners are thinking — how optimistic are they going into 2015? Are they happy with their decision to go into business? What things would they have done differently, looking back? As small business owners work on the front lines of the economy, they have an important perspective to offer about changes and trends impacting business at large.
We recently conducted a Small Business Pulse survey of hundreds of business owners to find out how they feel about the coming year, what changes they’d make if they had the chance to start all over again and where they think entrepreneurs should spend their time and resources.
Strategic planning, marketing and sales were some of the most common areas where business owners wish they had spent more time and resources. In particular, the entrepreneurs we surveyed wish they had sought out the advice of experts and mentors on these challenging subjects.
A Profile of the Entrepreneurs Surveyed
Of the entrepreneurs we surveyed, the vast majority are veteran small business owners, with 95% having owned their own business for four or more years and most running businesses that employ fewer than 50 people. The majority build their businesses from the ground up, while 17% took over a family business. They span a variety of industries, from professional services to manufacturing and engineering.
How would entrepreneurs have done things differently?
We asked our respondents two sets of questions to determine how they would have spent their time and money differently, given the chance to start over again. Despite their overall sense of confidence, in hindsight, the business owners we surveyed would make several changes in planning and resource allocation.
Given the chance to focus their time and budget on different things, respondents said they would invest more in marketing, finding and turning leads, strategic planning and hiring the right talent.
If they could turn back time, respondents would devote more hours to:
- Strategic Planning (27%)
- Sales (20%)
- Marketing/Advertising/PR (18%)
- Hiring and training employees (11%)
And they would spend more money on:
- Marketing/advertising/PR (20%)
- Hiring and training employees (18%)
- Sales (17%)
- Strategic planning (15%)
Strategic planning made the top four in both categories and was the primary area where respondents would have spent more time. Strategic planning helps entrepreneurs lay out where their business is, where they want it to go and how they’ll get there, from expanding operations to reaching new market segments.
Mapping out your sales, operations, advertising, marketing, public relations and growth strategies can all fall under the strategic planning umbrella. Experts and mentors can help shape the plan, but the biggest investment is the time it takes to fully understand your business and develop a well thought out roadmap for its future.
Interestingly, some commonly discussed aspects of starting a business were not mentioned in the responses. Operations, technology investments and product development were all ranked low on the wish list, and only 1% of respondents would have spent more time seeking investors and venture capital.
Incidentally, only 1% of respondents reported having received any venture capital to start their business, with the majority of them using their own savings. So if you’re starting a business but stressed out about making the fundraising rounds, don’t worry too much — many have achieved success without the help of outside funding. According the entrepreneurs we surveyed, it’s more important to have a strong strategic plan for business growth.
It would be easy to assume that funding is the most important factor at the start of any commercial venture, but given the choice to have invested more time or money from the start, 40% of respondents wish they’d spent more time on their businesses.
They would have spent their time more efficiently, investing more in planning and organization. No matter how much money you have in the bank, there are only so many hours in the day. Respondents wish they had prepared themselves to go into business by spending time improving their time management skills (33%) and strategic thinking (41%). Again, almost none of the respondents said they wish they had spent more time trying to raise money.
Getting (and keeping) customers matters more than developing new products
Weak sales and lead generation programs can stop a company from reaching its potential and cripple the growth of the business. Even if you have the world’s greatest product, you need to develop strong relationships with your customers to get your product out the door.
The majority (80%) of survey respondents said that developing customer relationships mattered more than developing new products and services, and 35% said that a system or plan to generate more leads early on would have helped them grow their business. It’s not that the product quality doesn’t matter. Most business owners probably had a solid product or service to launch their business. The important take-away from these findings is for new owners to place a high priority on lead generations and customer relationships in the early stages.
And don’t be shy about it — 86% of respondents reported that they wish they had been more aggressive, rather than cautious, at the start of their business. Stronger marketing and strategic planning may help make that possible.
Your product might be a “game changer”, but the way to grow your business is to create happy customers who will consistently deliver referrals and new leads. One of the best ways for a new business to get there is to seek expert advice, then build a plan for sales and marketing that looks years — not months — into the future.
Surrounding Your Business with the Right People
Many respondents feel that leveraging a stronger network would have given them a leg up on their business. The number one response from those surveyed was that they would have benefited most from better coaching and mentoring. The second most common response expressed regret for not having built a better network of experts for advice.
“We found that entrepreneurs are confident in their products and services, but feel they would have benefited from better planning and more guidance,” says Jason Zickerman, CEO of The Alternative Board. “24% of entrepreneurs say that better coaches and mentors would make the single biggest difference in their businesses if they did it over. Only 2% say that a better product would.”
What advice would seasoned business owners who act as mentors offer to newly minted entrepreneurs?
“Find your customers, and surround yourself with smart people,” says Zickerman. “It’s one thing to think about what you would do differently, but it’s another to have that guidance when you’re just starting out. That’s why business owners are looking at solutions like The Alternative Board — they’re realizing that there are entrepreneurs who have been there and done that, and can help them avoid learning these lessons the hard way.”
Turning insights into profits
There’s one thing that’s absolutely clear from these survey results: entrepreneurs can benefit greatly from strategic planning and expert help at the outset of their business. Every entrepreneur has gaps in his or her knowledge about some aspect of the business they’re building, whether it’s in sales, marketing and PR, lead development or building customer relationships. These are all areas where expert help and advice can make the difference between stagnation and success. Why spend time and resources reinventing the wheel?
While a plurality of respondents became entrepreneurs because of a desire to be their own boss, nearly a fifth of respondents were motivated to start their businesses because of the faith they had in their product or service — a passion born from their “lightbulb moment.” Although that passion can help a business grow, a solid foundation in strategic planning, marketing and sales can help turn an entrepreneur’s zeal into a successful business.
Business owners are as optimistic as ever, with 82% of survey respondents expecting an increase in revenue in the next year. This is not surprising, given that in the past year, 78% of respondents saw their sales increase or hold steady. In this positive climate, it makes sense that the vast majority of respondents reported that they’re still happy with the decision to start their own company.
Community support helps entrepreneurs thrive
This general satisfaction is bolstered by family and community support. The vast majority of respondents (93%) said that the people around them provided necessary emotional support while they built and ran their businesses. With so much financial stress on entrepreneurs’ shoulders, that emotional support can be crucial to a business’s success.
But beyond your friends and family giving their vote of confidence when you embark on your venture, fellow entrepreneurs also play an important role, both as mentors and an overall support network for people starting a business for the first time. The takeaway for those considering making the move to entrepreneurship? Find other business owners. They’ll offer not only valuable perspective and wisdom, but also a sense of camaraderie for when times get tough.
Still want more?
With thousands of members across the globe, The Alternative Board offers business owner advisory boards, executive coaching and business training to help budding entrepreneurs and seasoned professionals grow their businesses, increase profits and improve their lives. If you want to find out more about how your business can benefit from strategic planning, mentoring and more, contact us today.
The beginning of the year is a great time to step back from the day-to-day operations of your business and make time to cross a few items off your to do list. Here are 10 tasks that will help you begin 2015 on a great note!
Strategic Planning - Review the strategic objectives you set for your business last year. Did you meet your business goals? If not, why not? What can you do differently this year to make sure you achieve your strategic goals? What new objectives do you want to add to your plan? Don’t forget to ask your TAB coach for help!
Personal Planning – A lot of people make New Year’s resolutions. The beginning of the year can be fruitful for “soul searching” – especially when it comes to reviewing your work/life balance. Take some time to think beyond your business goals – about whether your business is giving you what you want out of life. If not, how can you change that? This is an area where your TAB board members may have advice.
Revenues – If your business picks up during this time of year, stop reading and bookmark this post for later! Everyone else, don’t relax and put up your feet just yet. There are many ways you may be able to maximize revenue this year. First, put yourself in your customers’ place and think about what is important to them. Are they worried about this year’s budget (and could be sold on the money-saving offers you can make)? What’s on their to do list that you can help with?
Budgeting – Speaking of budgets, if you haven’t completed yours for 2051, don’t delay any longer. (For a good primer on small business budgeting, see 6 Steps to a Better Business Budget.)
It’s also important to understand how your competition is budgeting, especially in the areas of marketing, sales and staff. For example, recent surveys show that many small businesses plan to increase their marketing budget in 2015, and to spend more than in the past on email, websites and social media marketing. If your biggest competitor is upgrading their website or making the move onto Twitter, you may have to follow and budget accordingly.
Customers – The beginning of the year is the perfect chance to say thanks to your customers! A lot of businesses send holiday cards, but when was the last time you got a New Year’s card from a business you patronize? It’s a sure way to stand out from the crowd, and of course, show appreciation to your clients. Another idea is hosting a survey to find out how you can help them better in the new year (try to discover their issues, as opposed to a “how are we doing?” questionnaire).
Here’s some advice from TAB member Tracy Fisher on understanding customer needs: “Every time you talk to a Customer you should inquire whether there any unfulfilled needs of the Customer. This simple step will educate your company on what additional products or services to provide in addition to your current mix.”
Operations – The new year is a great time to clean house, or in the case of your business, apply the principles of 5S. This simple technique originated in Japan but has become popular around the world, because it offers a way to organize your operations for efficiency – and keep them that way. The five S’s stand for: Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize and Sustain. By applying each step in order to your work areas, you end up with streamlined spaces that contain everything employees need to do their jobs efficiently. Although 5S was originally designed for manufacturing environments, it works for any work area that could use a little decluttering. You can find many 5S articles and primers online, or visit Amazon.com for a list of how to manuals.
Employees – Is it time to make any key employee changes? Do you have the right team going into the New Year? Employees are your number one asset. You already know if anyone on your team is not helping you meet your business goals. The timing is always delicate with staff changes but in the interest of your business and your other employees, be sure you have the right people on the team.
Projects – Now is the time to review your other “to do” lists, and ask your managers to do the same. Are there items on your list you never get to? Any unfinished projects? Assign a deadline to finish these tasks by year’s end or agree to take them off your list. Of course, this may not be possible in all cases, but you might be surprised at how many items fall off the list simply because they’re no longer important – not to mention how many get done because they have a looming due date!
Human Resources – Many businesses do year-end reviews with employees, so this may already be on your radar. If not, remember that the biggest complaint many employees have is that they don’t know what their managers expect from them. Even if you’ve already completed a formal review at the end of 2014, the new year is a good time to sit down with your employees and revisit their goals.
Here’s a performance review idea from TAB member, Richard Duggan: “When scheduling an employee performance review, I always ask the employee for their feedback on my performance as well. Not only does it validate their experience and company involvement, it also generates some great ideas for me, too.”
Celebrate! - Whether it’s an office gathering or just a way to remind your employees that they are appreciated, take advantage of the new year and hold a special event for employees. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just something out of the ordinary that brings people together, and reminds everyone that there’s more to their relationships than “work.”
What other items are on your new year to-do list? Leave a comment and let us know.
Whether your industry is health care, marketing, or whatever else, asset protection is vital to your business’s success. The fact is, when you own and operate a company, you naturally open yourself up to a number of risks. From the lengthy list of expenses you take on when you launch (including business loans) to the threat of lawsuit, natural disaster or product malfunctions, there’s a strong possibility that something can arise to harm you and your business. Because of the reality of these risks, it’s crucial that you take steps to minimize potential loss. By safeguarding your assets, you insulate your business from disasters, like the repercussions of faulty products, claims of harassment, or partnerships that go sour–should they happen down the road.
How to Protect Your Key Business Assets
So what goes into proper asset protection? What should you be doing to protect your firm? Step one is to start thinking about your asset protection now, before a problem occurs. According to Greene & Markley, commercial lawyers, “The very best advice is to assess your risks and take steps to protect your assets before there are any signs of financial problems. When the sun is shining and the sky is clear, you have a better chance of protecting yourself than if you wait until the storm clouds are on the horizon.” With that in mind, here’s a look at six key strategies for keeping your assets secure and your business moving forward.
- Set up an LLC or corporation. Making your business a limited liability company (LLC) or a corporation is a smart first step for reducing business risk. An LLC is designed to help you avoid personal liability for debts that your business incurs and make the business liable instead. Since there are different regulations surrounding LLCs in different states, it’s still worthwhile to get legal advice on this decision. Make sure you understand what this does and doesn’t protect in your area.
- Store important paperwork in fireproof cabinets and/or safes. One of your best protections in case of audit or lawsuit is keeping detailed, accurate records — but those records must be secure in order to be useful to you. By storing detailed records digitally and/or in fireproof cases, you ensure that you have access to them when you need them, even if unthinkable disasters occur before then. Safes can provide effective protection for high-value products, cash, or debit gift cards.
- Use digital video security systems. Another key way to increase the insight you have into your operations is through video security systems. Should you face claims of improper employee conduct or other behavior caught on video, you’ll have proof of what did or did not occur. This protects you against false claims with hard-and-fast evidence.
- Invest in insurance. “Asset protection planning should not be a substitute for liability and professional insurance,” says Jay Adkisson at Forbes, “but rather should supplement insurance.” So don’t make the mistake of confusing the two. Asset protection planning helps you minimize risks of lawsuits and other damages; liability insurance provides help when those lawsuits occur. Your insurance company will step in to handle your defense and settlement.
- Keep personal financial backup strategies in place. When you own a company, it’s easy to want to put all your resources into making that company succeed — but draw the line at retirement accounts. Your IRA or 401(k) is your emergency backup plan and will be protected even if your company fails at some point, so don’t touch it.
- Engage in scenario planning to highlight risks. Tim Stoll, Owner of The Alternative Board – Metro Baton Rouge says “If more businesses in New Orleans asked, ‘What if a catastrophic hurricane hit?’ they may have been better protected. We don’t know what we don’t know.” Engaging with a peer advisory board helps Stoll analyze his business assets from every angle. “We help each other see things from a different perspective.”
- Put a business succession plan in place: According to attorney Kenneth J. Laino, “More businesses collapse from lack of a business succession plan than from a lawsuit bought by a party unrelated to the business.” So think about it: what will happen to your company if something happens to you or another executive? If you want to protect your assets, you need to get a plan in place for this situation.“Securing the intangible knowledge base that allows your company to operate is both the most important and most neglected item on this list,” says TAB San Antonio President John F. Dini. “No owner likes to anticipate the day he or she doesn’t show up for work, but it does happen. Make certain that the people you expect to step up know the roles they are expected to assume, have agreed to take them on, and have documented incentives to stick around through the transition.”
The entire concept of asset protection planning is built on the concept of worst-case scenario: you prepare for disaster, so if it happens, the results aren’t as catastrophic.
According to TAB York facilitator Philip Spensieri, “Most business owners don’t think about asset protection until it’s too late. Take the time to speak with your financial, legal, and technology advisors about strategies you can implement to protect your business from internal and external threats.”
Is your company prepared for what could go wrong?
If not, why? Follow the above tips to prepare your company to survive whatever comes.
About the author:
Wes Wernette currently oversees marketing at FireKing Security Group in New Albany, IN. The company specializes in products and services to secure your business assets, including safes, cash management products and file cabinets.
Dave Scarola, Chief Marketing Technologist, TAB
I’m amazed at the number of people – including executives – who do their job without a plan. They come into the office, attend scheduled meetings, answer emails and address the urgent things that come up during the day. They are not operating off of a strategic plan to improve productivity. At TAB, we call this the tyranny of the urgent. Those people that come in each day with a purpose make a difference in the business.
Fast Company’s December edition was focused on how to improve productivity. It included 151 secrets of the most productive people. Lots of great ideas in there. We took some time to wade through them and highlight our top 10.
- Read Each Email Once: Fighting a war against your inbox? Author and professor Jonah Berger never reads an email more than once. “If you read now and reply later, you end up having to reread the original note. Only read when you have the time to reply.”
- Avoid unnecessary phone calls: “Unless I recognize the number or have scheduled a call, I don’t answer the phone” says information designer Nicholas Fenton. “I try to force most exchanges to email.”
- Hunker Down Before Leaving: Don’t make yourself available for appointments 60 to 90 minutes before leaving. Instead, asses your progress and reprioritize. Use this time to wrap up the most important tasks and push everything else to tomorrow.
- Set Your Priorities: Near the end of your day, write down your top three most crucial tasks for the next day and pick one to complete before 10 am. When you arrive at work at your productivity peak, you’ll know exactly what to do.
- Stand-up Meetings: Improve collaboration in meetings by removing the chairs from the conference room. Researchers at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis used body sensors on two groups of participants and found that team members who stood were more engaged, less territorial about their ideas and generated more creative results.
- Improve Email Efficiency: Don’t open email unless you’re prepared to deal with it right away, says Charles Hudson, author of Inbox Freedom: The Zen Masters Guide to Tackling Your Email & Work. “Instead of camping out at your inbox all day, only open it when you have time to respond, archive, delete or turn emails into tasks.”
- Stick to the Agenda: “If it’s not on the agenda, we don’t talk about it.” Adora Cheung, CEO of Homejoy.
- Managing Your To-do List: Use a to-do list as an intake document and not as a working document says Peter Bergman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction and Get the Right Things Done. Make a list of what you need to get done and assign it a time on your calendar. Then run your day from your calendar, not your to-do list. “You’re more likely to complete a task if you give it a when and where.”
- Create a To-Don’t List: Gary Friedman learned from Mickey Drexler at Gap Inc. to ask “what are we doing dumb?” The things that will make a difference are on the margins: things that are really, really important and things that are really, really unimportant. You want to focus on the important things and get rid of the unimportant. What are the dumbest things we are doing? We have to stop doing those things. Great organizations are able to edit.
- Get Things Accomplished in the Morning: Make mornings about execution and not assembly, says Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check Email in the Morning. You are at your peak productivity in the morning. Everything you need to start your day should be premade, packed or prepped the night before. Don’t leave decisions for the morning.
Is selling your company part of your exit strategy? One type of potential buyer is a strategic buyer, someone who has a specific, strategic interest in purchasing your company.
Let’s look at 5 big considerations a strategic buyer is going to be looking at when evaluating the value of your business.
1. Purpose for Buying
The first thing a strategic buyer will consider is their own purpose for being interested in purchasing your business. Some reasons a strategic buyer might be interested in purchasing your business are:
To gain market share and increase sales volume simply by eliminating a piece of the competition. Think about your company’s position in the market and how that position will help or hurt your ability to sell at a premium price.
To help the strategic buyer gain industry competencies in areas that their current organization is lagging. Take a look at your potential buyers and learn about their businesses. How does your organization differ from theirs in a way that will appeal to their long-term success?
To enter a new market. They may be interested in entering your geographic market, appeal to your demographic market, or to diversify their products or services—just as a couple examples.
2. Dependency on Current Owner(s)
The less dependent the sales and operations of the business are on you and/or other owners, the more valuable your selling price is going to be. A general rule of thumb is that no more than 10% of the sales of your business should be dependent on the efforts and connections of any one person—particularly the owner. Operations also need to be largely independent of your direct involvement. Ask yourself (or, better yet, try it): Would my business survive for 90 days without me? If not, it’s time to start developing and executing a plan to make your business run without you.
3. Strength of CFO & Financial Records
This is a critically important factor that a strategic buyer will certainly assess. The lack of strong financial management and statements will usually cost you much more in the selling price than the cost of preparing them. If you are lacking in this area, consider working with your CFO to bring in a 3rd party financial expert who can help bring systems and statements up to date.
4. The Strength of Your Management Team and Information System (MIS)
Excluding yourself, how strong is your existing management team? Is it strong enough to stay in place and be able to run the business when you are gone? How strong is the relationship between your management team and suppliers, clients, and employees? Does it consist of young blood that a strategic buyer can expect to develop to improve processes and assets in the future? A strategic buyer will be considering these questions when reviewing the strength of your existing management team when determining if they want to buy, as well as how much your company is worth.
Similarly, how effective is your MIS? Even though a strategic buyer might replace it with something they prefer or are using elsewhere, the lack of a state-of-the-art MIS is usually an indication that you don’t have all of the management tools you need to run your business in its most profitable manner.
5. Strength of Sales Team
Strategic buyers will look at the professionalism and turnover of your sales team. Lower turnover will give them more confidence in the continuity and accuracy of sales projections. Again, they will also look at how dependent your company’s sales are directly on you as the owner. The less dependent sales are on you, the higher they will value your business.
Strategic plan planning horizons. Are yours as short and chopped up as a horizon seen between downtown buildings, or are they like an open prairie that lets you see for miles and miles?
It is November, coming up on Thanksgiving. Are you taking this time to reflect on the year and review your strategic plan?
Imagine this: A business contact of yours calls you and says, “I have a great opportunity that is going to present itself in the second quarter of next year. I need to know, quickly, whether you want to participate in this. It will take about a half-million dollars, but it is a golden opportunity.” As he outlines the opportunity, it does sound good. But you say to him, “My budget isn’t ready for next year. We’re just in the budget process right now. I don’t know if I’m going to have room in my budget to participate in this venture.”
If your budget is an annual calendar budget that runs through Dec. 31, you have no way of objectively testing the impact—financial or operational—of an opportunity that won’t arise until the second quarter of the next calendar year. Your strategic plan planning horizon is too short.
Start putting together a 36 month rolling horizon for your strategic plan goals. Don’t limit your planning horizon to budgets, but also set a three-year rolling horizon for staff, markets, capital formation—everything that has importance to your strategic plan goals.
At the end of the first three months, the details for the next 12 months are adjusted or revised with a new starting point. You are always maintaining between 12 and 15 months of a detailed plan, and you add an additional 24 months of a non-detailed plan beyond that. If you never have a horizon of less than 36 months overall, you will be able to test the impact of your decisions before you make them.
How do you test the impacts? If you have a financial model of your business, you plug the decisions into the modeling. You project the investment level the decision will require; you project whether you can afford those dollars in your capital structure; you project whether your cash flow is sufficient. Try out the decision in your operation plan to see whether it would take people away from other critical parts of your operation to the detriment of those operations.
Your planning team should create options that supplement the goals set forth in your company’s strategic plan. The team must identify each of its members’ responsibilities. Collectively, these responsibilities should integrate into all the activities needed to achieve your company goals. Once the planning team has reached a consensus on the goals that collectively make up the strategic plan, the team can focus on the specific activities needed for each area of the company to reach those goals.
Your planning team must identify the critical success factors required to reach each goal. Each proposed success factor must be challenged as to why it is critical in attaining its specific goal. There must also be clear time frames for achieving each success factor. Otherwise, there is no way to monitor whether you are making adequate progress toward your company goals.
Your company might have a brilliant strategic plan in terms of growth and competition. But does it take your manager incentives into consideration?
Denise’s company, for example, implemented an incentive plan for top management that was tied to improving the company’s per-share earnings on an after-tax basis. The company had an opportunity to grow by acquiring another business in a synergistic field. But by structuring it through a stock swap, the acquisition would dilute the per-share earnings of Denise’s company. Is it any surprise that management found ways to foil the acquisition? How can you expect managers to make a whole-hearted effort to follow a strategic plan when it will cost them money out of their wallets? Russ’ company’s strategic plan called for 10% growth in annual revenue each year over five years. After the plan had been in place six months he realized that projected growth wasn’t occurring, even though profits were improving significantly. Why? In formulating the plan, Russ made rewards contingent solely on improved profit. It didn’t take management long to realize that the way to get greater compensation was to reduce expenses, even if those expenses could have led to future growth and profit. As a result, research and development were slashed, as was investing in hiring additional salespeople.
The message of both examples is that performance measurements must be based on a business’s strategic plan.
Measurements for incentivizing performance must support the broader objectives and goals of the company. At the same time, performance criteria should lead managers to focus on the company’s objectives as well as their own. Identical performance measurements cannot be used for every aspect of the company. As measurements affect different people and departments, different goals must be set. But each goal should lead in the same ultimate direction. Each element of the company must be united in achieving the strategic plan. A good strategic plan takes into account the managers’ best interests as well as the company’s goals. Furthermore, managers’ performance measurements and compensation need to align with the company’s strategic plan and goals.
By Dave Scarola, Chief Marketing Technologist
The impact of technology on society is a polarizing topic. You either think that technology innovation positively impacts society or you think it’s making us worse as a society. In my technology consulting and day-to-day conversation, I rarely come across people who are neutral to this topic. While some folks might perceive technology to be a relatively new topic, the controversy of innovation has been around for a very long time:
- Archimedes was a supporter of technology progress. He wrote: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world”.
- In the 1940s, Albert Einstein, haunted by the impact of the atomic bomb, said: ”It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity”.
- Aldous Huxley was not a fan of technology. In 1956, he wrote “technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards”.
I worked in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the 1980s. It was an exhilarating field to work in. We were developing linguistic systems to understand written language, expert systems to run complex processes and diagnostic and simulation tools to tackle highly complex problems with countless alternatives. The sky was the limit.
For all the promise of AI, its true impact has always seemed to be 20 years into the future. AI’s founders were profoundly optimistic about the future of the new field: Herbert Simon predicted that “machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do“. Marvin Minsky agreed, writing that “within a generation… the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved“. Both were written in the 1950s. Along the way, B.F. Skinner quipped that “The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.”
So, Who Is Right?
Is technology good or bad? I’m in the “technology is good” camp. The ability to communicate constantly with my children, the sense of community that social media provides and the brain exercising that video games stimulate are all positives in my book. All in moderation, of course.
But I will admit to one overriding fear of how rapid the progress has been. It’s the impact of jobs. Think about the industries that have been obliterated by technology. Prior to music being digital and online, you went to a record store to purchase music. People worked there. People also worked to manufacture the records (or CDs) and distribute them. The entire manufacturing backbone, supply chain and service system for music are gone – along with those jobs. The combination of digital technology and the Internet collapses entire industries down to being innovated and run by a relatively small number of people. As each industry gets fully or nearly automated, there will be less and less jobs to go around. Not everyone is equipped to be a knowledge worker. This is what economists call “creative destruction,” and it has been going on for a very long time. It’s going faster now.
Despite the concern on jobs, I am a very big supporter of technology progress. Working in AI was fascinating. However, in time, we came to realize that the problems were too complex for the machine itself to fully tackle highly complex problems on their own. Instead, we realized that the model we should be working towards is to find ways that humans and computers can work together to do what they are each best at. As this recent Wired article on the future of AI points out, computers are in fact helping humans achieve more – for example, there are more chess grandmasters now than before Deep Blue defeated Kasparov.
Minecraft Helps Kids Read
Despite the positive societal impact of technology at times being over-promised, I have come across several stories recently where technology is having a major positive impact on individual lives. Take the game Minecraft as an example. When I first started playing this game with my daughter, I found it to be underwhelming. The graphics of most games these days are unreal yet Minecraft has these boxy characters that look like they are out of 1980s video games. The beauty of the game comes from how involved it is. It allows you to design and build almost anything. Even though kids often expect resources to just be available to them, you have to work for your resources in Minecraft. You need to generate food to keep your characters alive. You don’t just have building materials available to you. You have to work for them.
The game is great. But what’s caught my attention about Minecraft is that it is helping kids learn to read. Some kids are not internally motivated. They will only invest themselves in things that interest them. Clever teachers are integrating Minecraft projects into their lesson plans. While most kids expect software programs to be obvious to use, Minecraft has so much depth that when combined with a school assignment, kids are motivated to read dense user manuals and books to learn the intricacies of the game that will help them get a good grade.
‘A Love Letter to a Machine’
I’ve now come across another truly amazing story about the positive impact of technology that I can’t stop thinking about. It’s a New York Times article on how Siri has become the friend of an autistic child. It is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. The author, Judith Newman, explained that her autistic son Gus would ask her endless questions about topics such as the weather which she often could not answer. It would test her patience. Once when they were in the car together, in response to a question from Gus, she asked Siri which planes were flying directly above them now. Siri listed off the flights one-by-one. When she asked Gus why he wanted to know this he said “so you know who you’re waving at”.
Gus discovered Siri at this point and they’ve had an incredible bond since then. Newman explains that an autistic child requires one thing that very few adults have: unlimited patience. When Gus speaks, he is hard to understand. Siri asks him patiently to repeat what he is saying until she understands this. This back-and-forth has helped Gus’ speech improve. Autistic kids are often infinitely curious about a narrow array of topics that interest them. Even though we parents should cherish the faith that kids have in our “wisdom” when they ask us endless questions, instead, we often get frustrated by our lack of answers and shut them down. Siri doesn’t get tired of the questions. And, she is able to do something that machines are particularly good at: return facts based on pouring through massive amounts of data. Siri is a perfect fit for an autistic child. As Newman explains, her son now has a friend.
There are many great stories like these where humans and smart machines are working together to do much more than either could alone.
I find myself reading a lot about hunting these days. First, I just finished Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”. What could be better than that? This book is about the Mexican Tamahumara Indians and their secrets to long distance running. The book is a page turner. My favorite quote is from a runner in his 90s who said “you don’t stop running because you get old; you get old because you stop running”.
One of the questions McDougall explores is The Running Man theory: whether humans were designed to run long distances. He cites research from evolutionary biologist Dennis Bramble, of the University of Utah, and Daniel Lieberman’s team at Harvard, that provides evidence, including unique human physical traits, that would confirm this theory.
I’ve also been slowly reading Lieberman’s Story of the Human Body. This book is part evolution of the human body and part healthy living book. I’ve really struggled with the dryness of evolution texts in the past but Lieberman has created a very interesting account. His thesis is that humans are experiencing so many diseases now because we did not evolve to deal with many of the environmental or lifestyle challenges facing us now. He does explain that while humans are not particularly fast or strong, we are designed to run long distances. As one example, the fact that we sweat rather than pant give us a unique advantage over other animals.
Even though Bramble & Lieberman provided a compelling argument that humans had many adaptions suited to running, the big question was “what advantage does the running man theory provide humans?” Their research found that humans became carnivorous well before sharp spears and bows and arrows were available. So, how did they track down their prey? Lieberman calls it “persistence hunting”. They literally run them to death. Even though their prey can significantly outrun humans for relatively short distances, they need to stop to recover. Humans are able to run long distances & this persistent pursuit is what enables them to ultimately overtake their prey.
Lieberman also addresses the transition from hunting to farming. It ultimately lead to our continually evolving culture which is where humans are now “evolving” most rapidly. But the transition to farming also introduced many health-related issues for humans. Jared Diamond called the transition to agriculture “the greatest mistake in the history of the human race”. Wow, that’s harsh! His position was based on farming leading to a more restricted diet. Because of the narrow human diet, famine would cause starvation because we became so dependent on a limited diet. The other downside was that farming allowed humans to live closer together, which introduced the spread of infectious diseases.
The last book that I read in my hunting series is Hunters in a Farmers World by John Dini. Dini, a prolific writer and also a legendary TAB Business Owner, explains that present day entrepreneurs are the equivalent of historical hunters. While “persistence hunting”, where a group of humans pursues their prey, may make it seem like all humans were hunters, clearly not all hunters were equal. Someone was leading the group of the hunt and directing each participant where to go. They were developing strategy and calling the shots to give the group the greatest chance of having dinner that night. These are the hunters Dini is referring to. Hunters build the business; farmers run the business.
Hunters in a Farmers World is a multi-faceted book. On one hand, it is a celebration of entrepreneurs and the risks they’ve taken and the accomplishments they’ve made to our economy and the lives of others. Dini takes care throughout the book not to take the perspective of “hunters are good & farmers are not”. As a proud farmer myself, I found Dini’s perspective to be balanced. In order for a business to run successfully, it involves hunters and farmers working together in balance.
This book is not theory. It provides one real business example after another involving successful hunters. It also provides unsuccessful examples to teach how not to approach an opportunity. Unlike any other book that I’ve read on this subject, “Hunters” takes on the real issues that entrepreneurs face in starting and running their business. This book is clearly written by someone who is a hunter, has worked with many hunters and intimately understands the complexity of decision making facing hunters. For example, how do you compensate new sales people? What should your role as owner be in the day-to-day of the business? What loyalty should you have to your employees? And even, how much money should you be earning from the business?
Here are a few bits of wisdom for entrepreneurs that resonated with me:
- Hunters don’t defend their failing solutions.
- Hunters never quit. There are no defeats, only setbacks.
- No one is really, really good at doing something he doesn’t like doing.
- Successful hunters hunt. They decide what needs doing and they do it.
- If owning your company is a lousy job, the uncomfortable reality is you made it that way.
- Great employees make you money. Poor employees cost your money.
There’s one bit of wisdom after another throughout this interesting book. If you wonder whether you are a hunter or not – wonder no more. Read this book and it will become very clear. A great example of a hunter that Dini explains is Chaz Neely who had to sell his house twice in the interest of his business – the first to save it during the S&L crash in the 1980s & the second to grow it once he survived the recession. Now that is a hunter!
In recent years there’s been an ongoing debate in business circles regarding Leadership vs. Management. While the concept of visionary leadership has been trending positively, the once noble role of management has become somewhat maligned. But before you throw out your copy of (outdated management book name – any suggestions?), let’s get past the semantics and cut to the core of which traits realistically help business owners get the best results from their team.
What makes you a leader?
Let’s begin this analysis by defining what we mean by “leadership” as it relates to modern business owners and CEOs. The late management guru Peter Drucker wrote, “The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.” In this regard, we will refer to private business owners or executives who are tasked with inspiring their direct reports – and consequently, the entire organization – as leaders.
You might envision a dynamic business leader as someone who is full of charisma, with the ability to convince their team to line up behind them and accept orders. But as management author Tom Peters so eloquently put it, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.”
Convincing your staff that your vision is worth following is a key element. But rather than enforcing subordination, a gifted leader will seek to spread their message virally by empowering every department head to lead their own division with the same enthusiasm and dedication.
Employees often emulate the values and standards they see displayed in the actions of their leaders, so creating a company culture of integrity and mutual respect will strengthen a company from the top down. To expound on the importance of respect, David Scarola, vice president of The Alternative Board, spoke to journalist Nicole Fallon for a recent Fox Business article entitled 5 Leadership Weaknesses and How to Fix Them.
“The best leaders have learned that if they make the right decisions for their business, even if unpopular, and also take the time to explain their reasoning, they will earn the respect of their employees,” Scarola said. “In the long run, this is the best outcome a leader can aspire to.”
When did “management” become a bad word?
In some ways, visionary leaders are portrayed as the new heroes of the modern business era. But every hero needs a villain and, as the management vs. leadership discussion gained traction in business articles, managers were often portrayed in a less than favorable light. In other words, being a mere manager was seen as unfashionable or tied to the past, while striving to be a leader was admirable. But is this just semantics and the evolution of business language, or is there more to it?
Traditionally, many business managers ruled their subordinates based on fear and control, reward and punishment. As the psychology and technology of leadership evolved, the old ways became outmoded. Bosses who cling to the bully tactics of intimidation are becoming less common in the modern work environment.
While it is still important, and natural, to have an established hierarchy within certain organizations, the methods of getting the best results out of your staff have become less draconian. Certainly, managers are not all heavy-handed in the ways they impose their authority. In fact, a common managerial trait is the desire to not rock the boat.
According to an article at ChangingMinds.org entitled simply, Leadership vs. Management, “An interesting research finding about managers is that they tend to come from stable home backgrounds and led relatively normal and comfortable lives.” The piece goes on to clarify, “This leads them [managers] to be relatively risk-averse and they will seek to avoid conflict where possible. In terms of people, they generally like to run a ‘happy ship.’”
So for the purposes of this article, we will refer to managers as those who are appointed to a position of authority within a company and given a specific set of tasks to implement while overseeing a designated group of employees.
Analyzing the Differences Between Leaders and Managers
In what’s become one of the most socially-shared articles on leadership, Stanford professor Bob Sutton said, “I am not rejecting the distinction between leadership and management, but I am saying that the best leaders do something that might properly be called a mix of leadership and management.”
In June, 2014, The Alternative Board surveyed 336 business owners to get a street-level view of what leadership actually looks like in practice. When asked what the most important trait was in terms of dealing with their employees, 63% of owners said their role was to inspire action. Yet when the same owners were asked which function matters most to running their company, 46% of participants identified accomplishing goals as most important vs. just 38% who said setting a vision comes first.
In other words, the real leaders feel their role is to inspire the team, yet realize that all of the motivational speeches in the world won’t mean a thing if their team doesn’t ultimately see successful results. This illustrates how a hybrid of forward-thinking leadership traits and a proven managerial skill set is likely the best combination for business owners to both inspire and provide for their organization.
Warren Bennis, author of Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader, summed up the management vs. leadership distinction succinctly. “To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct. Leading is influencing, guiding in a direction, course, action, opinion.”
This chart outlines the differences between leaders vs. managers:
Management vs. Leadership: What are the dangers of becoming one at the exclusion of the other?
While it’s obvious that eschewing modern leadership traits in lieu of an old-fashioned managerial style could put business owners behind the times, heading too far in the other direction has its drawbacks too.
As Bob Sutton put it in the aforementioned article, “Some leaders now see their job as just coming up with big and vague ideas, and they treat implementing them, or even engaging in conversation and planning about the details of them, as mere ‘management’ work that is beneath their station and stature.”
Also, not every business will be perfectly suited to implement the most forward-thinking leadership strategies. For example, Drake Baer recently reported in Business Insider how leaders like Virgin’s Richard Branson followed the lead of Netflix founder, Reed Hastings implementing a policy of unlimited vacation time for all salaried employees.
While this policy seems to be working for certain Silicon Valley tech startups like Netflix—who have been “rigmarole-free” since 2002—such liberal ideas may not play as well with all business institutions. The Business Insider piece also points out, “Slate writer Matthew Yglesias says that the only companies that would dare ‘offer unlimited vacation do so because they’re confident their employees won’t choose to take much time off.”
This comparison shows that in the leadership vs. management debate, there may be times where traditional, tried-and-true management systems work best in the short term. That’s not to say leaders should ever stop innovating and taking risks with potentially groundbreaking ideas. But as with many things in life, moderation is likely the key to finding the right balance between experimental leadership concepts and functional management practices.
However, for a company to truly rise above its competition risks must be taken. TAB CEO and President Jason Zickerman boldly states, “Visionary Leaders will look for the best thinking, not the safest. The most creative solutions, not the most cautious.”
How can you become a better leader?
In his book, Scaling Up Excellence, Bob Sutton says, “Spreading and sustaining excellence depends on skilled leaders throughout an organization– not just the top dogs.”
Jason Zickerman has some specific advice for business owners in his newest white paper — “Forget no one in the company as you convey what’s ‘in it for them.’ Whether it’s someone doing research, analysis, administrative duties, sales or presentation development, your job is to make sure each person on the team sees, understands, accepts, knows and embraces what they can do personally to help achieve the vision. Then, you need to make them feel good about it.”
If you’re looking for additional resources on ways to improve your leadership techniques, the four business owner books TAB founder Allen Fishman penned will open your eyes to new ways of successfully running a business.
Better yet, explore how joining a TAB board will give you the benefit of learning from other business owners who know what you’re going through and know how to help you overcome obstacles to enjoy greater success!