9 Lessons After 25 Years in the Business

happy 25thTwenty-five years ago this week, I found myself out of a job. It wasn’t planned, and it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me (thank you, PC Week.)

Of course, I’ve made hundreds of mistakes, and fortunately, I’ve forgotten most of them. But here’s a short list of what I learned along the way, and sometimes, I didn’t have to get it wrong first to get it right.

Join a CEO group. Actually, I’ve been in about 4 over the years – and I consider this the best thing an entrepreneur or leader can do. It’s four hours of separation, with built-in accountability, and if you’re really lucky, a place where you can get new ideas, admit what isn’t working, or is scaring you out of your wits, and be asked to confront what you are choosing not to see. I’ve learned more here than I can remember — with insights from peers on how to avoid bank fraud, manage costly audits, and hold trusted employees accountable, just for starters. Some are expensive, some aren’t. But it’s rarely about the money.

Pivot the business. (or… Do the 90 degree change…or even a 180 degree change.) We usually do every few years. And fortunately, consistently at least a couple of years ahead of everyone else. The hard part is keeping the right connection to yesterday, while jumping into tomorrow, without the pendulum swings that drive everyone nutty. Because as with any new market, just a tiny percentage of targets will be ready to innovate, and it’s just plain foolish to ignore everyone else, who still count on you to do the right thing, for who they are, and where they are today.

Hire a coach. A tough one. Someone has got to tell you when you’re getting in your own way. And chance are, it won’t be the people whose paychecks you sign.

Consistently ask clients – and staff – what they really think. Customer satisfaction surveys can be big fat lies. But done right, people will tell you what they aren’t willing to say to your face. We adopted the Net Promoter Score model about eight years ago, and it has changed our business. We also use it internally. The truths we hear are not always pretty, but they are vitally important. These often-anonymous answers are a bet-on-it read of where the market is today, what people really need to know, and where it’s likely to be heading. Then the hard work starts, because getting the responses is just the beginning.

Fire the people that can tear you down.  Most people figure I’m hard-core, but I hate confrontation. So when I hired a #2 who told me to be quiet and not interrupt her in a client meeting, I was shocked, but said nothing. Big mistake. Then I learned she was building her own alliances. She was gone the next week, because I figured out that without trust, there’s nothing to build on. Lessons learned: It’s important to give people a chance, even more than one. But check your motives. Patience is good, within reason.

Take a sabbatical. It’s really easy to work, not so easy to stop. So I did it twice, both times, to learn something new. I came back from the first one –12-hours-a-day of yoga training  for 22 days–  with a pretty cool handstand, and a new understanding that being honest – even when it goes against convention – works out much more often than not. The biggest reason to avoid the truth is fear.

Decide not to play by anyone else’s rules. We hire people who are really smart, and really smart people want to know what’s going on. It plays out in the work they do, and how they think about it. So we share a lot of information, and always have, across all ranks. Every time I smell tension, it’s because something isn’t being said. So much easier to say it. I just start out thinking, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ and plan for it. The worst-case has never happened.

Embrace paranoia. It’s way too easy to become complacent, and appreciate your own efforts. Over- studying the competition is mostly a waste of time, but understanding how a client views what we do – or didn’t do any particular day, or week, or month – is critical. Working hard isn’t the same thing as delivering outstanding results. And every time a client pays the bill, they’re making a choice between us, their staff, and profit. So in my book, a healthy amount of paranoia is just good, respectful business.

Celebrate. The opposite of paranoia. Sometimes, we rock it. Sometimes, we don’t. Either way, we work hard, and we need to recognize it. It still takes effort to remember that not everything needs to be better. Sometimes, it’s just fun. So here’s to the first 25, which have been much more fun than I ever would have imagined, and whatever comes next.