It finally dawned on me… I can’t do everything myself. Oh, the pressures we put on ourselves when running a business in our quest for perfection.
I’ve read my share of self-help management books and I’ve heard the term “Jack of all trades, master of none,” but still, it was tempting to think that I would be the one who would master it all. Especially as a new business owner, I didn’t want to let my team down. But, one of the many things I’ve learned in the past 31⁄2 years is that more often than not, people really are happy to lend a hand because it makes them feel good. And it’s somewhat disarming when they hear you ask them for help. That can only help strengthen the relationship, because it sets the stage for open and honest dialogue. Then, of course, it’s up to you to really listen.
A wise man I know recently told me to encourage participation from everyone in your business. Even from the mouths of babes come pearls, he said. He also told me that I didn’t “use him” enough. Well, when I finally found the courage to call him and ask him for advice, I think it was rewarding for both of us. It made me feel good when he told me that most business owners share these similar concerns. “A business is a business,” he said, “whether you’re a vending operator or a publisher, whether you’re worth $1 million or $5 billion, you still need to make your nut each month, pay the rent and make sure your employees get their checks at the end of the week.”
For that reason, of course, a number of successful entrepreneurs have established “boards of directors” with other local business people in different kinds of enterprises. These might better be called “boards of advisors,” since they don’t have the responsibilities of a corporate board. While the details of running a workplace service or public entertainment business will be very different from those needed to run an auto body shop or a dry cleaning store, there are any number of common concerns: recruiting and personnel policies, financing and accounting, and customer relations and marketing, to mention just a few. Other business leaders usually have developed effective approaches to those common problems, and exchanging them can stimulate thought and engender creative solutions to persistent problems.
Most of us have weaknesses, and we need help filling in the gaps. This is why it’s so important to have advisors. Mentors aren’t (necessarily) your parents, friends or even your more generous investors. They are business veterans whose role is to tell you what you really need to hear about your company. They do plenty of cheerleading, but their real value is in the objective, unvarnished advice they can provide. Identifying your own weak spots may not be an enjoyable way to pass the time, but it will go a long way towards helping you find the right advisors.
While just about everyone – young and old – can benefit from a mentor, not everyone is ready to establish that relationship. Headstrong folks who aren’t open to criticism may not get much out of it. Mentors shouldn’t be dictators. Their role is to ask questions and give information that will help inform your decisions. I have also found that most mentors enjoy working with younger business owners because someone once helped them, and they want to return the favor. Many advisors find it fulfilling and energizing. And it’s a two-way street. You’ve probably already found yourself sharing advice and experiences you’ve had with someone less experienced than you. After all, isn’t this one of the rewards of knowledge?
I’ve found advisors in the most unexpected places. Last month at the National Beverage & Products Association show, I had the pleasure of spending some time with my colleague and competitor, Ben Ginsberg, publisher of Vending & OCS. Obviously, there are limits to the business advice a competitor will dispense, but Ben told me some priceless stories about my late father, VT cofounder Victor Lavay. (My dad, it seems, was a great athlete, among his many talents, but Ben was a better one!) More to the point, we talked about some of the challenges in the world of printing and postage – concerns shared by all publishers.
Now, Ben has been around the block a few times and has an air of confidence and candor you seldom see in a less-experienced business person. These characteristics, in my opinion, make for the best advisors. I think there is something to learn from everyone, you just need to know where to look, be receptive and know how to listen.
Over the decades, a number of operators have become legendary for their willingness to assist their less-experienced brethren even though they know that those people will become competitors. Their reasoning usually is that there always is going to be competition, so the sensible thing to do is work toward ensuring that the competition is intelligent and honorable. Freely sharing advice and knowledge with competitors can encourage them to avoid the mistakes that will put them on a downward path to extinction, sowing general distrust among clients along the way.
While the business world has glamorous areas peopled by disproportionate numbers of young, feral individuals who talk as though destroying their competitors is the obviously correct and desirable course of action, serious proponents of the free market know better. The “classical” economists, from Adam Smith forward, have recognized that free enterprise requires cooperation as much as, or even more than, competition. For business to prosper, everyone must play by the same rules, which must be applied fairly.
As importantly, if an industry is to thrive, its members are obliged realize that they have a collective responsibility for building and strengthening public confidence in it. This means, at the very least, remaining profitable and thus staying in business, fulfilling contractual obligations and observing a certain standard of commercial ethics.Many operators have told us, though, that those essentials are only the foundation. Mutual confidence between competitors makes life much more enjoyable for both parties. A good competitor will teach you important lessons, one way or another. The process is likely to be much more pleasant when you also are friends.