Archive for the 'Business' Category

The Power of (Constructive) Criticism

          I’ve done a considerable amount of writing in the past, and one thing I learned early on was the practice of submitting my article to others for critique. Humbling at times and often uncomfortable, my writing skills became  better over time as a result.  I believe there is a powerful principle here that is applicable to the entrepreneur, and for the following reasons.

           But first I should clarify what I mean.  The American Heritage Dictionary defines criticism as “the act of making judgments or evaluations,” and critique as “a critical review.” Thus when I speak of the power of constructive criticism I refer to a process whereby an assessment is made by the entrepreneur – or, by others – of any one segment or the whole of an organization, which, if acted upon, results in its betterment.

            I believe this can and should happen on one or more levels.

          The first I would identify is self-criticism, and there are at least three venues for this. 

            The most basic is where the business owner evaluates the enterprise, identifies areas needing attention, and takes corresponding actions to correct or improve them.  As most entrepreneurs are naturally inclined to do this anyway, this is an ongoing and continual process, albeit a mostly unplanned one.

            Closely associated is the input available from company personnel.  A valuable HR tool I’ve used over time is the Same Page© format of employee evaluations.  In this format not only does the company evaluate the employee’s performance, the employee evaluates the company’s performance.  Admittedly, criticism obtained here is not always constructive, but it is valuable from the standpoint of obtaining an employee’s perspective of the operation. Plus, what it says to your team is that their input is important and their ideas welcome. 

            The final venue for self-criticism is a more formal one, that of the SWOT analysis.  Here, the management team or select individuals take a close look at the company and identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.  This process can also be discomfiting  at times, but the information garnered provides an invaluable tool for goal setting and planning.

            The second and most important level of constructive criticism should be sought outside the organization; namely, from the customer or an independent consulant or group. I’ll address the latter first. 

            Perhaps the best counsel I received early in my business career was to form an advisory board for my company – which I did, maintaining it for over 20 years.  Meeting quarterly, this group – comprised of successful business people – reviewed my financial statements, pending major decisions, and future plans, all with an impartial perspective and unafraid to point out deficiencies.  In recent years it was a CEO group I belonged to that gave me what I needed to move forward in the new economy.

            None of the above compares however with the input the customer provides.  While I can’t say I love complaints, I can say the ones I have received and responded to have served to make T. L. Hart a better company.  It isn’t all about complaints, though; it is finding out what the customer likes and dislikes about what you do for them.  This input must be solicited, whether by way of a personal phone call, an online survey, or a client-satisfaction response card.  There are also companies that can provide this kind of service for you. 

            As far as I know, no individual or company  has fully arrived and cannot improve in some way.  Inviting and applying constructive criticism goes along way toward achieving this end.

The Law of Adaption

It wasn’t long ago that my son, John – who happens to be in corporate finance – challenged my business model.  At the time, I wasn’t so sure that I knew what a business model was, let alone what ours was.  Over a period of years, however, I have learned that whatever your business model is, it must of necessity fit the market you are in.  And, if it doesn’t, you have to change it.  I call this the Law of Adaption, and this is the way it works.

 1.  The Law of Adaption says that if the shoe doesn’t fit, then you had better try a different shoe.  The point is, markets vary; there are geographical realities, demographic realities, and economic realities.  If, for example, your business model  is geared toward manufacturing, and manufacturing in your area has dwindled, then you had better look for something else to gear to.

2.  The Law of Adaption says that it is not about what you want, it is about what your customer wants – and this is subject to change.  That is, what is important to the customer today may not be the same as what is important to the customer tomorrow.  And while some things never change, other things are always changing.  A case in point is the current emphasis on environmentally friendly products and services.  What was non-existent in the customer’s mind ten years ago is now becoming predominant. 

3.  If changing customer wants and needs are not enough, changes in your customer’s personnel compel your company to adapt.  The Law of Adaption says you must adjust to the people within the organization you serve.  The face of corporate America has changed dramatically in recent years.  In some cases entire levels of management have been eliminated as a result of downsizing.  In other companies seasoned personnel have been replaced with younger, less-expensive individuals.  In each case it is imperative to keep track of changes, and  quickly acclimate your firm to new people. 

4.   The Law of Adaption says that you must constantly assess your product and service offering, adjusting it where necessary and eliminating things if need be.  I have seen this in my own industry.  Whereas vinyl wall coverings were in great demand in the 80’s and 90’s, multicolor paints became the product of choice in the past decade.  Now, however, it is slowly changing back.  For us, this has meant a change in personnel and the skills required for employment at T. L. Hart, Inc.

5.   Finally, the Law of Adaption says that a company must fit the dimensions of its market.  In this case, if the shoe doesn’t fit, then you had better try the other foot! Put another way, the market you are in determines the size of your company and the room it has to grow.  A company located in a relatively small geographical region cannot look and act like one in a large metropolitan area if it wants to survive long.  In other words a large company in a small market doesn’t work unless it expands it scope.

 I’m sure there is more, but the point is things are always changing, and if you and your business do not adapt to the changes, then chances are you’ll succumb to the company that does

Restoring Vision

     Ancient text informs us that “without vision the people perish;” it is during challenging times like these that vision is tested and often lost.  

     My mentor for twenty years and author of “Awakening the Giant,” the late Jim Russell, used to say that vision is the definition of a long-term goal.   No wonder then, that without it businesses lose their bearings and find themselves in a morass of problems that threaten their existence. By nature, entities must have purpose for being – a long term goal, if you will – in order to provide impetus for progress.  When lost by reason of economic upheaval or other types of duress, it must be restored.  This process, the restoration of vision, involves at least the following four points.

     Perhaps most important is to re-establish first cause.  In other words, to go back to the beginning and revisit the purpose for which the company was established to begin with.   Whether it was to be your own boss, create jobs, or save the environment – whatever the reason, chances are it is still valid and, once reinstated, will enable the enterprise to move forward.       

     I should caution here that in order for a vision to advance anything, it must have sufficient power.  Being your own boss, for example, gets old in time, especially when recession and financial pressure makes life uncomfortable.  A vision has to be larger than that, big enough and powerful enough to drive the company towards it. Jim Collins, of Good to Great fame, refers to it as a “big, hairy, audacious goal” – or a “BHAG.”  It has to be big, it has to be scary, and it must be bold enough to qualify.  If it is not, then a new one is in order.

     The second step is for management to make a firm commitment to the fulfillment of the vision.  This pledge cannot be unlike that made by our founding fathers, who dedicated their lives and sacred honor to the realization their long-term goal – a free and open society. In other words, the vision must be worthy of our dedication to it.

     What is amazing about America today is the fact that fewer and fewer citizens posses a working knowledge of the Constitution, and are, as a result, suffering the loss of freedoms guaranteed by that document.  This is largely because it is no longer taught in our schools and universities.  The lesson is this:  vision must be communicated.  It is not enough to have one.  It is not enough for the owner(s) to be committed to it.  It has to be communicated to every level of the organization.  This is the third point along the way of restoring vision.

     Finally, vision must be policed.  By this is meant the patrolling of the BHAG.  One does not have to look far to see companies and organizations that once had brilliant vision statements and noble causes now a far cry from their original purpose.  And this is an ever-present threat for those brave enough to establish and pursue something larger than themselves.  For this reason the goal must be carefully watched and protected. 

    Vision is a powerful thing; it has driven men and nations to achieve both the extraordinary and the atrocious.  It relatively easy to obtain but difficult to maintain.  Once lost, it is very hard to get back.  There is hope, however, for those whose dreams have been shattered, whose vision obscured, and whose goals hindered.  They can be restored. You can get them back.  Re-establishing your original purpose, committing yourself to it, communicating and policing it, are actions you can take to do just that.

What Matters Most

It wasn’t long ago that I enjoyed lunch with a long-time customer and friend.  He was undergoing cancer treatment at the time, and was doing quite well.  He told me one thing that had come of his illness was a realization of the importance of faith and family.  Those comments had an impact on me and have stayed with me ever since.
     Among those qualities that make people great is the proper ordering of priorities.  It is all about focus.  Whether a thing is important to us or not is seen in the amount of time and energy we put into it.  If we spend ourselves climbing thecorporate ladder, it is clear that being at the top counts.  If playing golf is important to us, we’ll be sure to work it into our calendar.  My point is that where our time is spent is a strong indicator of what is important to us. 
     My friend was a good man and well-respected in the community; sadly, he won his first go-around with cancer, but lost the second.  In the interim, however, he came to grips with an issue that often eludes us.  What really matters in life is not how big our businesses are or the size of our bank accounts, but our heart condition toward God and those closest to us. 
     I realize faith in God and the marketplace seem worlds apart for some, with little room for religion in the fray of day-to-day business.  Not a few feel that way.  Maybe my friend felt that way – until he was hit with a life-threatening disease.  I have observed that regardless of your persuasion, faith becomes important at some point in your life.  It may be the death of a loved one, an impossible situation at work, or simply a question as to life’s purpose.  Whether it is embraced or allowed to pass is another issue; nevertheless, faith is not a stranger to most people. 
     Unlike faith, which relates to an unseen world, family is flesh and blood, and too often they are neglected in our race to achieve.  Success provides little succor, however, in times of duress, and no P&L will comfort you when you most need it.  Your family will.
     I have been happily married 38 years now and am the proud father of five children.  In my race to build a business, I was often gone and frequently worked late; and when things were not going my way it showed up in my demeanor at home.  Though deeply committed to my family, I look back with some regret for not spending more time with the kids, and not being more emotionally present when with my wife.  Those are days I can never get back.  But what I can do is put ‘first things first’ today – intentionally placing my focus where it best belongs.
     It is unfortunate that it often takes tragedy to put things in proper perspective.  Maybe that’s one reason bad things happen to good people – like my long-time friend.  I am glad he had the time to refocus his attention on what mattered most; what is really tragic is that many people don’t.

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.

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.   

February 2020
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