Archive for January, 2010

Be an Overcomer

     Years ago I heard something that has stuck with me ever since.  The man I was listening to said, in no uncertain terms, “it’s either overcome, or be overcome.”  In other words, you have two options in life:  you either win or you lose; there is no ‘tie game.’

     I teach John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership on a regular basis, one of which is The Law of Victory.  This law says that “leaders find a way for the team to win.”  Thus no matter your position in life, albeit husband, father, wife, mother, business owner or manager, team leader – you have some degree of influence, which Maxwell says is leadership.  And your responsibility is to make sure you and those you are responsible for win. 

     “Victorious leaders,” Maxwell states, find the alternative to winning unacceptable, so they find out what needs to be done to achieve victory, and then they go after it with everything at their disposal.”

      I have to admit that I have not always been of this mindset.  In fact, I thought for the longest time that there was no way I could ensure winning, since there were so many variables outside my control.  That’s until – not long ago – a trusted friend sat across the lunch table from me and said, “Terry, your business will take off once you change your thinking about it.”

     Since that time I have come to understand that there are certain characteristics of an overcomer, some of which are as follows.

     Relationship.  If you stop and think for a moment, it’s all about relationship – who you know and who knows you. Not in a strictly sales sense, but in the sense of being in the context of others where there is the potential for encouragement and the exchange of ideas.  No man is an island, and I don’t think you can win without others.

     Tenacity.  There’s a proverb that speaks of men who “may trip seven times, but they will get up again.”  That to me is tenacity.  You don’t give up.  Even though you experience set-backs, you keep going.

     Focus.  The Wall Street Journal some years ago ran this little poem on their editorial page:  “The bumper sticker in my view was clever, I admit it; as soon as I had read it through, I laughed so hard I hit it” (Dick Emmons).  Moral of story: don’t get distracted from your central purpose.

     Creativity.  I am of the opinion that there is simply no way you can win in this current economic environment without coming up with new ways of doing things.  Maxwell says “creativity is essential.”

     Diligence.  This is similar to tenacity but to me implies a determination, a pressing forward, a relentlessness.  I picture a person with this quality forging ahead, nothing lagging.  He has a mission and won’t rest until it is accomplished.

     Process.  We must understand that certain things take time.  Short and long-term thinking is required if we are going to make it through.  Overcoming is almost always a long term endeavor.  If we are short-sighted and base our decisions on the immediate we’ll likely make the wrong choices.

     Right thinking.  There is another proverb that says, “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”  In other words, in order to get it right in the marketplace you’ve got to get it right in your heart and your head.  Your attitude is everything, and as a leader it will shape your entire organization.  You’ve got to think, act, and carry yourself like a winner.

     Right speaking.  What we say has incredible power.  The words that come out of our mouths will shape not only our enterprises, but the very course of our lives.  Our choice of words is very, very important if we want to win.

     Faithfulness.  This characteristic understands that the little things are the big things.  It means attention to detail.  Faithfulness sees that it’s the little foxes that spoil the vine.  The basics are important to any undertaking, and to be an overcomer we must practice them consistently.

     In summary, I am not aware of anyone who is not currently challenged, and I think there may be more tests on the way.  Regardless of the circumstances, however, our approach to business – and to life – must be to win.  And that is my take on being an overcomer.

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Two Economies

     I’m excited about 2009 – I think it’s going to be a great year.  That’s because I am on a different economy.  
     I believe there are two economies at work in our country.  One is the economy that you read about in the papers and hear on the news everyday – even on conservative talk shows.  It is the economy of gloom and doom, of catastrophe, of bankruptcies and bailouts and billion dollar loans and trillion dollar debts.  It is 7.6% unemployment (10.6% in Michigan) and millions of job losses.       
     The other economy is the one where the other 90% of people work for companies who may not be doing what they did in the nineties, but they’re still providing a wide range of goods and services to those of us who use them.  Locally speaking, it’s the Meijer’s and Kroger’s of the world, the Spartan Motors and Demmer Corporation’s, the C2AE’s (an engineering and architecture firm) and the O’Leary Paint Company’s that, despite all the dour predictions, are doing really quite well.
            My wife and I were quite taken aback as we listened to Governor Granholm’s State of the State address recently.  If anyone has cause to be negative and grim, it is Governor Jennifer Granholm who, as leader of the State of Michigan, by and large bears the responsibility for its undesirable economic condition.  Yet Governor Granholm was anything but grim; on the contrary, she was upbeat, positive – even somewhat excited.  Why?  Because she was not focused on all the bad news, but the good.  While acknowledging that there would have to be more budget cuts (which are not necessarily bad), she cited case after case of new companies coming into Michigan, others expanding, still others venturing into new territory.  I got the sense that Michigan is on a roll; that we’re moving forward, and that good things lie just ahead.  I actually felt good after listening to her – and I am not even a democrat!
            I belong to a local networking group, and the leader of that group happens to be in a position where he has inside information as to what the job climate in Michigan is really like.  And, according to him, there are tens of thousands of jobs in Michigan just waiting for qualified people to fill them.  Maybe it’s not so bad after all.
            My point is this:  notwithstanding that these are indeed uncertain times, and many people have been negatively affected, still there is every reason to be hopeful, to believe the best about the future.  It is certainly not a time to sit back and wait for opportunity to come knocking, or to expect old business models to work. But neither is it time to lay down and die – figuratively speaking. 
            The two economies I speak of are, on the one hand, one of gloom and doom; and on the other hand, one of positive expectation.  The reason I am excited about this year has to do with the latter.              

The Extra Mile

     It has been said that there are no traffic jambs on the extra mile because so few elect to travel there.

     Not long ago Barb and I were dining at a local restaurant with my son and his wife when all of a sudden the manager showed up with a luscious dessert for the four of us.  It was on the house, he indicated, having learned we were there to celebrate Barb’s birthday.  A short while later the waiter brought out our bill, and – to our surprise – $40 had been deducted from the total!  “The manager wanted you to have that,” he stated.  Needless to say, we will certainly patronize that place again!
     Outside of that instance I had to think long and hard as to whether I had ever been the recipient of something extra like that, over-and-above what was expected, and I couldn’t recall another occasion.  I even asked Barb, and she couldn’t think of one either.  I believe that’s because there are not many willing to go beyond the norm.  In fact, these days you have to check to make sure you’re getting what you paid for to begin with!
     What do I mean by the “extra mile”?  It is a valuable principle that derives from a statement made by the world’s greatest teacher, Jesus Christ, who said,
 
          “Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 4:41). 
 
     In other words,   do more than you are required to do.  Anyone can do what they are supposed to do, but it the rare person or company that goes a step further and does more than is expected of them.  It is the difference between average and excellent, the good and the great. 
     Of course there are risks involved.  One such hazard is the person who takes advantage of your generosity, expecting more from you than you are willing or able to give.  After all, even the smallest gestures have costs associated with them.  Another is the individual or entity who compels you to go two or three miles – what do you do then?
     I have to admit there have been times when I have retracted from applying this principle for these very reasons.  In the long run, however, I am convinced that it is the little things that add value to your organization, that keep customers coming back. 
     Pastor and author Dave Williams recently stated that “the second mile is short compared to the benefits at the end of that mile.”  The truth is that there will never be any want of opportunity for the company that is committed to exceeding expectations.  These are the businesses that will thrive regardless of economic conditions.  Some companies will cut corners and at the same time try and make you think you got what you paid for.  Others will simply deliver on their promises.  A few others, however, will go above and beyond the call of duty, adding that small extra touch that makes you want to call on them again and again.
     I want my company to be one of the latter.   

Against All Hope

     In his business classic, Good to Great, author Jim Collins recounts the remarkable story of Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking U.S. military officer to be imprisoned during the Vietnam War.  Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment, Stockdale is quoted as saying, “I never lost faith in the end of the story.  I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

     The title of the chapter – one I’ve read many times – conveys its central theme: “Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith).”  In other words, you don’t deny your present circumstances; but you don’t accept them as final.  Stockdale continued, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

       This is an important message for us all.  Rarely are things the way we want them to be.  In many cases the truth of our situation gives cause to fanciful delusions on the one hand, or a throwing in of the towel on the other.  Ironically, it was the optimists who never made it out of the infamous Hanoi Hilton.  These were the ones who refused to face the facts and made baseless claims of impending release.  Tragically for them the day never came.

       There is another historical figure that faced a similar challenge.  Being the recipient of an extraordinary promise made to him by God, the Hebrew Abraham anticipated a son, upon whom the promise rested. Yet the years passed by and the time came when neither he nor his wife, Sarah, were physically capable of having children.  The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans recounts Abraham’s posture:

        “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed . . . Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old – and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver. . .” (Romans 4:18-20).
 
        The reality is that many people’s hopes and dreams are being shattered these days. Long-standing companies are going bankrupt, investments are disappearing, and jobs are being lost.  Others are severely tested in other ways.  These are the brutal facts.  Yet they needn’t be final, providing we believe that we can and will prevail in the end – even if there seems to be no basis for doing so.  Like Jim Stockdale and the biblical figure Abraham, we’ve got to have faith in the “end of the story.”

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid!

     I remember well the campaign slogan of the Clinton era – “It’s the economy, stupid!”     Its basic message was that most of us had it  wrong; that it wasn’t about politics, policies, competence, or character.  It wasn’t about abortion, gun control or the definition of marriage.  It was all about money, yours and mine, and how all around bad it was.    (Interestingly, those look like the good old days now.)  Today, it is the same tired mantra; but the more I think about it, it’s not about money per se; and it is not the economy. 

     To be sure, my company and I have been affected by the economic downturn; I am challenged as much as other small business owners.  But I believe the root cause of our problem lies well below the surface of interest rates, credit availability, taxes and regulation.  It’s does not have to do with economics; it has to do with how we view economics – our attitude towards money and how it plays out in real time.

     It has been said that people don’t have money problems, it’s how they think about money, how they handle it, and what they do with it that are the real issues.  Here are some things I have identified as being underlying causes of our economic woes:

 Entitlement.  By this is meant the mentality that we have certain rights to things – economic, material or otherwise – regardless of whether or not we qualify for them, have earned them, or whether they are good for us or not.  This attitude permeates our culture, rich and poor alike.   The reality is that, by our own Constitution, our rights extend to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They do not extend to things, but the freedom to pursue things.  Thus happiness is not assured; its pursuit is. Compounding the effects of this mindset is a government that plays to it.

Debt.  There was a time when there were no credit cards; if you didn’t have the money, you didn’t have the money, and you either saved for what you wanted or you didn’t get it.  The problem with debt is that it presumes upon the future; either you believe that things will stay the same or get better, or you don’t care.  This kind of thinking has a lot of folks foreclosing on their homes, working multiple jobs to keep up with minimum balances, or filing for bankruptcy.  Certain types of debt can be useful, but for the most part it creates a false sense of prosperity, causing many to live beyond their means, often resulting in financial failure for both people and nations.

Sloth.  There is a biblical proverb which goes like this: “He who is slack in his work is brother to him who destroys.”  In other words, laziness is not a good thing. Being an employer for 35 years, I think I have seen everything.  But one thing I have noticed recently is an overall change in people’s attitude towards work.  The prevailing mentality is do as little as possible for as much as possible, retiring as soon as possible so we can continue to do as little as possible.  And then complain about how bad the economy is.  “All hard work brings a profit,” is another saying.  It seems to me that there are few problems that cannot be solved by plain old hard work.

Charity.  “As you sow, so shall you reap.”  This is a truth the nation’s farmers understand, but it escapes most everyone else.  History teaches there is a cycle to all great nations, and part of that cycle is that they go from abundance to selfishness.  Though Americans are the most generous of the world’s peoples, their level of charitable giving pales with their level of income.  Perhaps the answer to our economic woes is to take a larger chunk of what we do have and support those who have less – and I don’t mean the forced redistribution of wealth.  I mean freely giving to meet the needs of others, through the local church, charitable organizations, or directly to those less fortunate than we are.  I have found that the more you give the more your get; benevolence always pays off in the long run.

 In summary, the nation’s economic situation is real and it affects all of us.  However, the answer is not adding fuel to the fire by increased entitlement programs and debt, but by fostering a culture of generosity and hard work.

Regress – or, Progress?

     A question we all need to be asking ourselves these days is whether we’re going to buy into the mentality of fear, lack, bailouts, and bankruptcy.  Or, if what is going on around us simply represents great opportunity; challenges that if overcome will move us forward to becoming the individuals and companies we want to be.  Will we cower in fear and pull back?  Or, will we lurch forward with determination?

     Borrowing from a good friend of mine, Kevin Berry, I’d like to present three things that will enable us to move beyond being just survivors to becoming victors in this present economy.  I should say too that these three actions can apply to any area of life, not just business.

1) Look up.  I know it’s not politically correct but it’s what virtually everyone does when they’re in a tight spot, and that is pray.  Surveys consistently show that most folks pray on a regular basis, and I guarantee they pray when in trouble.  So the first and best thing to do when facing the challenges of the day – individually or corporately – is to pray.  When we do this we’re taking our eyes off ourselves and our circumstances, and placing them squarely where they ought to be to begin with:  on God, who is quite capable of providing aid in the most difficult of situations.  History is replete with examples of men and women, including the most prominent, who turned to God in times of distress only to find a listening ear and a helping hand.  So the fist step toward progress is to look up, pray, and expect God to answer.  And we must not forget to give thanks when help arrives, directing it to the One who provided it!

2) Hook up.  There is a Proverb that says, “In the multitude of counselors there is safety.”  Another states, “Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established.”  All of which is to say there is no substitute for good advice.  The second thing we must do then – if we want to progress, is to hook up with others who, by virtue of their character and experience, can help us through to the next level.  This might be on a one-to-one level with a trusted business associate, a paid coach or consultant, or perhaps the context of a group of others whose collective wisdom exceeds yours.  Too, the value of listening to seminars on your CD or MP3 player cannot be discounted.  The idea is to connect with others that can help you.  In fact, oftentimes answered prayer comes in the form of other people.  So look up to God and hook up with others.

3) Keep up.  More often than not, our individual battles are won by pure and simple perseverance.  We never know when the next breakthrough is coming, and if we give up we may never find out.  How many successes have not been realized by people who have quit just short of the finish line? The idea of quitting ought not to be entertained for a moment! Unfortunately, the business climate is such that, not only are we sometimes tempted to give up, but the legal system in the United States seems to encourage it.  After all, why keep going – with all the attendant risk and potential for failure – when you can walk away and be protected from your creditors?  But “Quitters never win, and winners never quit.” So then, the only way out of this economic predicament is through it.  It’s a race that can and will be won – not by the fainthearted or easily discouraged, but by those who are determined to move forward with endurance.   

     In summary, then, ours is a choice as to whether we will regress – shrink back, even give up – or progress – move forward toward our goals and aspirations.  Remembering and acting on these three principles, look up, hook up, and keep up, will help us do just that.

Beyond the Buck

Booker T. Washington once stated that the essence of success is not goals met or achievements made, but the obstacles overcome in the process.  For the entrepreneur, then, this means there is more to small business than just making money.  There are intangibles that  – in the long run – can be worth far more than the bottom line.      

     Take for example the impact you can have on others.  I believe it was 1983-84 when I heard the late Bob Klineman (RBK Building Materials) speak.  He had recently been recognized by the local chamber for his accomplishments, and was placing the praise where it belonged – to God.  What inspired me was a comment he made about the ‘bully pulpit’ – that is, the platform you have as a business owner for influencing others.  What an incredible opportunity we have to add value to lives of our employees, customers, and vendors!  
     Closely related are the life long relationships that are forged through the venue of business.  While there are too many to list, one such relationship in my case was with a man named Jim Russell (RBF, Inc.).  Russell, who passed away in 2005, took me “under his wing” in 1985, and for the next two decades poured into my life the things he had learned in the corporate world.  Not only that, but he and his lovely wife, Phyllis, became the closest of friends, inspiring us by their faith, love, and good works.  I will forever be indebted to Jim for the positive influence he had on me and my family, not to mention, my company.
     And then there is the issue of character.  Being in business can make you a saint or a crook, depending on how you choose to fulfill the role.  There is ample opportunity for doing what is right or doing what is wrong – and plenty of occasions for that gray area in between.  I’ve met men whose accomplishments made them greedy and proud, forgetful of how they got there and who helped them along the way.  Then there are others whose dreams have been dashed and their lives devastated by failure.  Character is the stuff of which we are made; it’s what we do with what happens to us. It is the choices we make when under the gun. Being an entrepreneur can make you a better person – or, it can destroy you.
     Finally, there is charity.  All too often successful organizations are criticized for making money.  And the rich are vilified for being so. Yet rarely are their contributions to the welfare of others recognized.  Without benevolence, without philanthropy, where would the funds come from for fighting cancer, providing for the homeless, or feeding the hungry?  Charity is the greatest motive for success; we make it so that others might make it too.  Personal and corporate achievement paves the way for others to advance in life as well.
     This is where the buck comes in.  Earnings are not just ends, but the means to greater good.  Income not only provides for corporate growth and advancement, but for those organizations that rely on the generosity of others for their support.  All benefit, and the sum total of the positive is far greater than the dollar that drives it. 
     Way beyond the buck.