Read an Excerpt
NO MORE 16-HOUR DAYS
When Tessie was a young girl, her godfather, a diabetic, underwent a series of amputations. With the help of home health-care professionals, he learned to walk again. Witnessing this process, Tessie was in awe, and it inspired her to want a career in home health care. After working for a home health-care company to gain knowledge and experience, Tessie felt that she understood the inner workings of the business. She was ready to launch her own company.
She got together one evening with her friend David to talk about it. They’d been thinking about this for a long time. That night they sketched out a “business plan” on the back of a napkin and became business partners. Four months later, they were up and running with 20 employees. Tessie said it felt easy in the beginning. “We worked hard contributing everything we had, and the business grew as if by its own momentum. In those years, I don’t think we knew enough to understand we were actually running a business. We just went at it knowing we both had enough to contribute. Then it hit us like a ton of bricks.”
The turning point for Tessie came with the frightening realization that her business wouldn’t continue to grow unless she and David did something differently. What that something was, she had no idea.
We were successful based on our growth, but we weren’t managing it properly. We were not running our business; the business was running us. We needed to change, but we didn’t know what needed to be changed or even how to figure out what it was that needed changing. We felt all along that the two of us could make it happen and that we didn’t need any help to get through it. But we were feeling exhausted. We were starting to have uncomfortable conversations. We were asking ourselves: “What are we going to do? How are we going to get through the next day and keep up the pace we set for ourselves?” We had just been going on, day after day after day, never taking a look at where we were going. Finally, we hit a wall.
Freedom—Lost and Found
Like many, maybe even most, business owners, Tessie and David were driven to own their business for the freedom it would afford them personally and professionally to be their own boss and to create the kind of quality business they envisioned. Their success in the early stage of building their business didn’t prepare them for the struggle to keep up with the pace of growth. Hard work is something you expect, but reaching a point where it feels like you may be jeopardizing what you’ve built can be scary. Like Tessie and David and many other business owners who have arrived at a similar place 5, 10, or 15 years down the road, perhaps you are thinking, “I don’t know how I can keep this up. This is not what I signed up for.” Or maybe you can see the potential of that wall coming, and you want to avoid the crash. What gets us to this point?
Driven by a fierce desire for the freedom that owning your own business promises, you jump in, energetically rolling up your sleeves and giving it your all, confident that your knowledge and hard work are all you need. Your dream begins to take shape. Suddenly you have more business than you can handle, along with all the accompanying responsibilities and problems. You are holding on tightly to the belief that you can do everything yourself, not feeling that you can trust anyone else. There’s too much at risk. Although it is getting harder and harder, you feel that you have to hold everything together, or it might fall apart.
You fear that if you were to bring someone else in to help you, he wouldn’t care as much as you do. Besides, who would that be? How could you find the right person with the right combination of knowledge, experience, and skills, along with genuine caring? He might try to change everything, especially the “secret sauce,” the alchemy of ingredients that has made your enterprise unique in your field. You feel alone, stuck, at a loss for how to do things differently. You can’t see a way out. You feel trapped. The more you try to manage and control everything and everyone, the worse it gets. Yet it’s all you know. You realize that you have to do something differently when something crucial happens, such as one or more of the following events:
You lose a key employee.
You lose an important customer.
Your bank pulls your line of credit or won’t approve a loan you need.
You’re having trouble controlling costs.
You can’t hold people accountable.
You feel the bind you are in; you can’t handle the growth you’ve had, and you need to grow in order to keep going.
You are tired; you realize that your business isn’t good enough to sell, but it isn’t bad enough to close.
The freedom you sought by having your own business is fleeting, and your confidence is going with it. Instead, you feel more caged in and stuck in a frustrating cycle. During the day, you are doing your best to keep up with whatever demands arise, while at night you are losing sleep, fearing failure, worried about letting others down, and knowing that all the hard work and determination that got you to this point will not get you out of it. You keep saying to yourself, “There’s got to be a better way.”
There is a better way. I know it will sound ironic to you now, but that tight-fisted control you’ve been using to run everything, to hold everything together, and to keep it all going one day at a time is limiting your growth potential. It’s putting a cap on that potential and locking it down. Although your solo command-and-control style used to work, maybe even was necessary in the beginning, that same tactic won’t serve you now that you’ve grown your business, and certainly not if you want to expand it or sell. You don’t have to be the one-man band, doing it all yourself. In fact, if you want to grow, you will need to enlist some other musicians.
When I admitted my own fear, and I realized that I owned the business but didn’t know how to run it, my astute wife, Mary, said in her straightforward style, “I guess you’d better learn.” I knew she was right. After much reading and research, I discovered professional management—a way to run a business employing proven fundamentals and disciplines that empower a business to continually reach new levels of growth. I learned that you don’t have to do everything yourself. In fact, if you want your business to grow, you can’t do everything. You need to include other people —talented, skilled people—and you need to involve everyone: engage them at every level, trust them, and give them responsibility and freedom. You need to let go instead of holding on so tightly. This is a big shift—a shift in how you think of your role as the business owner and leader, as well as how you think of the roles of your employees and customers, and of vendors, distributors, and others. More important, it’s a shift in how you behave—in what you get up in the morning and do each day.
Professional management helped me to successfully run Iams and to increase sales from $12.5 million to $1 billion over time. And it is helping thousands of others to regain their freedom, confidence, and control, and to run successful businesses. With knowledge collected from some of the nation’s foremost business strategists and many owners of privately held businesses who have lived and studied professional management, Aileron has developed a unique system that has been designed to guide and empower private businesses—the owner and the entire organization—to live professional management. We say “live” professional management because it is a values-based system that, once embodied, flows into and benefits your whole life, not just your business.
The system is practical and adaptable, not theoretical. Just the opposite. We want it to make sense to you. And because we want you to be able to apply it right away and be successful, we provide a built-in platform of support. You do the work, but we guide you, help you to find the resources, and hold you accountable. We call it Aileron’s Professional Management System, also known as DOC.
We have learned how to distill and teach professional management in digestible pieces. We break it down so that you can learn the fundamentals and implement them in your business. The purpose of the system is to help you get everything going in the same direction and sounding more like a well-orchestrated symphony than a one-man band. This approach helped Tessie and David and thousands of others to discover a better way to run their businesses, and in the following chapters, we hope you will discover it, too.
A BETTER WAY TO
RUN A BUSINESS
IS YOUR BUSINESS RUNNING YOU?
Wes started his IT business as a way to raise money to go to medical school. He never thought about it as his career or his future until he was in the midst of it. The business took on a life of its own with growth through what he described as “brute force.” Wes was energized by every opportunity that came his way. He snapped up every new project despite the pressure that it put on his resources and the toll that all this growth had on everyone. His employees went home drained at the end of each day. Wes knew that he risked losing key people if he kept pushing them, and his family barely had any time with him.
Jim’s experience as president and owner of a security services firm had all been growth. He’d never known anything but the upside until October 1, 2008, the first day of his fiscal year, which happened to coincide with the beginning of the Wall Street meltdown and an economic recession. His phone started ringing incessantly, and every caller had the same message: “We need to cut our budget.” His company lost 18.5 percent in a matter of months. He had no idea what to do during those market conditions, no experience, no plan, and no one to advise him. He felt powerless and alone. His fears of failure and his isolation mounted daily. Although no one else knew it, he feared that he’d fail to make the payroll. Lying awake most of the night and retreating from his family, he was spending all his time at work worried.
Christopher had doubled his business, bringing it from $10 million to $20 million in a relatively short time. Despite the fact that he was doing well, he feared that he could fail and lose it all. In a way, this fear was a good thing because it was a signal to him to look for help before trying to take the company to the next level. Christopher had grown up in Cameroon, Africa, where, he explained, it was common for the life span of a business to be very short—four or five years—because of a lack of business systems. He was concerned about managing his company’s fast growth. Would they be able to make timely changes? Did they have the right people? Did they need training? Was his leadership up to the demands?
Tessie and David, Wes, Jim, and Christopher are like so many business owners who have to experience a big setback to realize that if they want to be sustainable, they can’t keep managing their business the same way they have been. Others instinctively know this before they suffer damage. But often, they don’t understand why or what has to change.
These business owners aren’t alone. Their stories echo those of business owners across the country and around the world. More often than not, business owners find themselves caught in a frustrating cycle of putting all their time, energy, effort, and resources into keeping up with current demands, and this prevents the business from growing to the next level. It’s kind of a bait and switch. Much of what you did to build your company to its current level of growth just won’t work for you anymore. You’ve reached a ceiling, or you know that you will if you don’t change things before the next wave of growth.
You may already be experiencing some debilitating issues: the loss of a key employee or a vendor, lack of employee engagement, trouble holding employees accountable, or the potential loss of a big customer because of encroaching competition. It is clear that you are not in control, although you work hard to hold on to it. Despite your firm grip, you are not running your business; the business is running you. But you don’t understand why. You can’t step away from the immediacies of the day-to-day demands to get perspective because you don’t have time. If you could, you might be able to see that many of the problems you and your employees face are due to a lack of focus on fundamentals—Direction, Operation, and Control (DOC)—that can give your business more structure and the opening you need to go to the next level, to be profitable, and to be sustainable.
When your business isn’t achieving what you hoped and expected, do you know why? In many cases, this is because of a lack of clear direction for the business. Clarifying direction takes careful thought and communication. Since you are so busy working in the business, doing everything you can to help it to be successful in the short term, you can’t carve out any time for the luxury of thinking about and working on a long-term direction for the company. While that would make a big difference, it would take valuable time, and your day is pretty full providing a different kind of direction—micromanagement for employees, customers, vendors, and business partners. You are wearing a lot of hats; there just isn’t time to step away to think about the future. With all there is to do, you’re feeling lucky to make it through the day without a crisis and relieved that you can keep your head above water.
Setting direction is not only about long-term planning. It’s imperative for the short term too. I like to think of direction as a road map for a trip. You need to think long term by asking yourself questions such as these:
Where do I want to go?
What do I want us (the company) to be when we get there?
But you also need to think about the short term and grapple with these questions:
Who are you (the company)?
Where are you right now?
Who do you want your company to be on the journey?
How do you want to do business while you are on your way?
Setting direction is about being aware of, articulating, and communicating what you do every day, as well as what you want your business to look like in the future. To that end, you need to learn to stretch your thinking by asking these questions:
How will your business fit into the marketplace?
How will you provide the needed leadership?
Everyone looks to you, the business owner, to provide clear direction that helps them to know and understand where they are, what they are doing and why, and where all this effort and energy will take them.
You need to communicate all this and create the plans for getting everyone there. In this role of visionary leader, you can involve more people, engage them with purpose, and galvanize them by connecting them to the significance of their contribution in reaching the goal. Without clear direction, you have a group of people with diverse ideas about where to go, what to do, and how to get there. Scattered, maybe even clueless, they have no knowledge or inspiration that helps them to feel motivated by what their work means in the whole scheme of things. They don’t know how what they are doing ties into what someone else is doing; they’re not aware of what their work will mean to the customer next week or the company in six months or the greater community in six years. Although your employees share space in a building and work for your company, they don’t have a real understanding of how everything is connected. Without that sense of purpose and meaningful connection, they can’t perform to their fullest potential.
When you feel that you have to do it all yourself and no one else has any idea what needs to be done beyond what’s right in front of them, it’s hard to work together as a high-functioning team. There is never enough time to do everything that everyone in the business wants to accomplish, and it is hard to identify the highest priorities. Without a long-term direction, employees, vendors, and partners rely completely on you for day-to-day assignments and decisions. They would like to make decisions and take initiative by offering ideas and trying new things, but they don’t feel that they can without consulting with you. And so a tightly controlled, frustrating, and self-limiting cycle continues to feed on itself.
It’s likely that you don’t see or understand how your own behavior, communication or lack of it, and decisions are affecting those around you. At the same time, your employees can’t see how their work is contributing to a bigger purpose for the company. They want to know where the business owner wants to take the company so that they can understand how they can make a difference in helping the company to get there.
Having a sense of direction includes understanding how your business fits into the overall marketplace. Failing to understand this makes it nearly impossible to anticipate and respond to changes taking place around you that can influence your business. This can lead to a loss of customers, profits, and competitive advantage, and ultimately to your business being left behind.
Tying In Operations
When you and your business lack direction, the operation of the business isn’t aligned properly and purposefully to achieve a specific desired result. This causes multiple problems:
You assign people certain roles and responsibilities without any parameters for doing so. Often, it is just because they are there or because you think you can count on them, but you don’t really know if they have the skills and the capacities to handle whatever comes up.
As your business has grown, it has been outgrowing the skills and talent of your people, but you don’t have time to train them. People may be mismanaged or not managed at all, and you have no way to hold people accountable.
Employees are not sure how they can contribute and make a difference for the company. They can go only as far as the business owner allows them. If they try to go beyond, they risk getting out of sync with the owner and others. They don’t know what they need to do to improve. When they see opportunities for initiative and innovation, they feel handcuffed instead of free to take risks and try something new.
In many cases, a desire for greater freedom is a major reason for going into business. Yet in your quest for control, you lose your freedom. In fact, you lose your freedom and you lose control. Let’s see how this plays out.
To control the results of the business, you think that you have to manage your employees’ behavior instead of empowering them to achieve defined results. This mind-set restrains everyone and the business, limiting contribution, innovation, and growth, and making it impossible for you to hold people accountable because there are no stated objectives or standards and no resources provided to achieve them. Everyone’s hands are tied.
Sometimes employees can’t perform at the level expected simply because they haven’t been made aware of the expectations. Employees may need training or resources to develop their potential, to optimize their knowledge and skills, or to learn something new that will advance them and the company. You can find this out only if you measure what is going on in your business—sales, quality of service, customer satisfaction, and anything else that is critical to your company’s success in the marketplace.
Controls are a way to measure your progress toward your direction. Establishing controls, or measuring and monitoring results, provides concrete data that you and everyone else can use to understand your current performance and what you need to do to reach your goals. Controls provide clarity. This is not micromanagement of people; it is about measuring and monitoring results. Lack of controls can show up as serious problems:
Your work culture isn’t productive.
Damaging behaviors, such as apathy, lack of initiative, distrust, disrespect, or negativity appear.
You have lost touch and are in the dark about what is going on in your own company.
When all three fundamentals—Direction, Operation, and Control—are put into place, all aspects of your business are integrated. You now have a framework in which everything is connected in meaningful ways for getting everything going in the same direction. When something shifts in one fundamental, it causes a shift in the others. This inner structure of fundamentals and disciplines is designed to be elastic to allow for growth and change in your business.
Becoming Aware of Your Beliefs and Mind-Set
A lack of direction, operation, and control, with all of its consequences, often leads to a disappointing pattern that might result in burnout for you and your employees, lower client satisfaction, loss of market share, uncertainty on the part of vendors and distributors about your being around for the long haul, lack of backing from your bank, a persistent feeling of being out of control, and a loss of freedom.
The pattern I’ve drawn is common, and it’s usually due to the business owner’s own beliefs or mind-set. At Aileron, we see it over and over when people first come to us for help. As you read through the following list of common barrier beliefs, consider whether you are holding any of them. Do any characterize your thinking, and are they part of a vicious cycle frustrating your success?
Common Barrier Beliefs
You believe that hard work and determination have gotten you this far.
You believe that if you bring in someone else to help, to take on part of your responsibilities, she will change things and mess up your secret sauce.
You fear sharing the secrets of your business with anyone else.
You haven’t spent the time to truly understand what you hope to achieve or what you want out of life.
You are a successor in a multiple-generation family business, and you feel a great obligation to not let the previous generation(s) down.
You are afraid to ask for help even though you don’t know how to break the frustrating cycle you are in.
You are under the impression that the business is doing well enough until an unforeseen event occurs that throws the business off track.
The business has grown, but it eventually hits a ceiling, and you don’t know where to turn.
The good news is that you can break this cycle. In the next chapter, you will learn more about the fundamentals—Direction, Operation, and Control—and how they can be practically applied to support you and your business. And in the chapters that follow it, we will dive into more detail to help you see how it works.
The fact that you are reading this book means that you can probably identify with many of the problems we have shared. Our hope is that you will soon identify with some of the solutions and find the relief that comes from implementing them in a way that works for you. We hope that you will discover a new way—a better way—to run your business.