I have always tried to learn from others who have been in business much longer than me and take on their advice. Sometimes you still miss some important matters that could have made a difference, so here are my top 5 things I wish I had learned earlier:
1. Change needs to be managed but ultimately pushed through.
Through large and small organisations I have experienced huge changes in direction, structure, processes and technology. In all cases, I have seen management (and I include myself here), try and cater for those who fear change or are reluctant to change. What I have discovered is that it is well and good to manage the process and help them adapt, but in the end, as a business owner, you have to limit the flexibility if you want to move forward. You should have seen the uproar at Sun Alliance UK when it was suggested we accept claims by fax in the 1990s. Staff said that fraud would go through the roof and the business would collapse. Well guess what: we survived and just adapted new processes to counter any issues. So cater for fear of change, but do not let it hold your business back.
2. Maintain balance. No one cares how many hours you do except your loved ones who miss you.
I can remember being eager to accept Saturday morning overtime (ok, the money was a bonus) to impress my boss and volunteering to stay back and work on time-critical projects. I believe these decisions were appreciated and may have furthered my career. However, once you work for yourself the urge to keep working longer hours needs to be harnessed to make sure you can deliver consistently throughout the week. You are better off having a regular routine that you stick to than pushing yourself and burning out half way through the week, month or year. My assistant noticed that oftentimes when I had late meetings on a Thursday or Friday, I went through the motions with a client. Well the client noticed too, and gave the feedback in follow-up phone calls that I was different than usual. It is not good for the client relationship — or your long-term business — for a client to feel they are not worth your full attention. So clock off at a reasonable time and gain brownie points at home instead.
3. A generalist puts food on the table, but a specialist builds wealth and power.
When starting up my business, I was focused on getting as many clients as possible and never turned down a prospective client. I believed that was a requirement for a small suburban business and you could not specialise like those in the CBD. However, as my business has grown I have learned that if you can specialise in a chosen field and capture some of that niche, then you can add far more value to your own business and improve the ultimate quality of service to your customers. In the “Google era” you have no choice but to be able to step up and deliver more than standard results, and if you do you will be well rewarded.
4. Value yourself, your people and your service above the client relationship.
About three years ago I learned to say no, and it was a hard lesson. I would make excuses for clients who were impatient or gruff and sometimes downright nasty. It wasn’t until one of my biggest clients, clearly worse for wear after a few drinks, abused one of my staff over the phone and had her in tears, that I realised I had to set some ground rules. I work hard and my staff does too, so I will work with people who pay a fair price for fair advice — and who respect what I do and the role my staff plays in delivering our service. Nobody has the right to bully or be over-demanding if you are working to agreed schedules. To back up those ground rules, we set guidelines to benchmark a good service turnaround so we can tell clients what to expect and when. Oh, and I sacked that client and you know what, it felt good, and my assistant appreciated my support.
5. Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.
No matter what your personal or work life throws at you, it is how you react to those situations that determines the final outcome. If you can see life’s challenges coming, then you have a better chance to adapt well and mitigate the damage, but even something that really catches you off guard can present an opportunity for you to thrive or at least turn disaster in to opportunity. I can remember the 2nd Gulf War putting many investors off the share markets. However, I had been sitting on a trading desk in London when the 1st Gulf War started and had seen how the markets soared once the jawboning ended and the war began. In 2003, I was ready for that moment, and March 2003 will remain one of my best month’s results ever. I learned it is the fear of outcomes in business that holds us back — not the actual outcome itself, which we learn to manage.
I would love to hear your comments and what you wished you had learned earlier in your business career.
To read a relevant story on delegation by Liam Shorte, see “Delegate, but monitor. Or prepare to pick up the pieces.”
For a post on work-life balance, see “Are you maintaining your most important business asset?” by Ailsa Page