Gaining On Gravity

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Conquering The Changing Slope Of Business Growth

You walk into a crowded networking room. There is light chatter as the participants start to introduce themselves. It seems like the people around are radiating confidence and success, boasting the usual achievements: “They had the best year ever;” “The second quarter is off to a promising start;” and “You know, I really have an excellent resource you should meet.” You feel like you can’t celebrate your own successes in this accomplished room. Your do-to list is a mile long; perhaps your first quarter undelivered. You don’t even have the time to pretend you can contribute to this group of business elite. You wonder if this level of influence is even worth the struggle. You can feel your lack of enthusiasm reflected in your posture. Tomorrow will be another grueling day.

Do you recognize yourself in the description of the drained entrepreneur? At one time or another, every business owner has compared the challenge of entrepreneurship to pushing a boulder up a steep hill. Oftentimes we hear from exasperated business leaders, “I feel like the effort from all this work will just roll right back over me” or “I doubt I will ever make it to the top.” Owning a business is not for those that cannot appreciate demanding work. Not only does leadership take a great deal of courage, it requires limitless energy and strength in the face of adversity. It means having the ability to drive a business forward, nurture the capabilities of employees, cultivate the right relationships, and make key critical decisions. Sometimes it even feels like riling up the strength to swing your legs out of bed in the morning is impossible. Yet, despite the odds, great leaders are the first to the table every morning, ready to push through another day.

This common dilemma of constant action is comparable to the ancient struggle of the Greek figure Sisyphus. According to the myth, Sisyphus was once a clever and resourceful trickster who was able to outwit the gods. However, Sisyphus’s success was selfish in purpose and ultimately destructive to those who trusted him. Because of his greed, he was sentenced to an eternal lifetime of pushing a boulder up a steep hill. Once Sisyphus was able to reach the summit, the boulder would roll back to the bottom and he would begin again—unable to ever reach his goal.

What a powerful metaphor for the challenges of modern entrepreneurship! Take for example the story of a young entrepreneur and their team that recently achieved funding for an educational resource product. Like all new ventures, they started with an idea that unified and energized a small group of talented technicians. They felt they were in the trenches as a team and their efforts seemed to be paying off. Together they had the right connections and were gaining serious momentum in their industry. Then, as they grew, the group needed a clear leader. With that came the pressures of responsibility. Suddenly, this person was ripped away from the work that was initially fulfilling and felt isolated in their responsibility to make decisions and delegate tasks to support the organization’s vision. They were filled with self-doubt and anxiety for the future; even when there were successes, nothing was celebrated. They just moved to the next goal. Feeling paralyzed by overwhelm can happen at any stage of a business and has many different nuances dependent of the strengths of an organization, leader, and team. However, whether you’re starting a new venture, growing it to the next level, or getting close to realizing your full vision of success, the boulder-on-a-slope concept perfectly captures the many facets of business growth and transformation.

Now, let’s dive deeper into the different factors that can be affecting your personal progression up the hill. First, let’s start with the boulder itself. The boulder represents your product or service or, more specifically, the ease of sale of your product or service. The harder it is to find, sell to, and fulfill the needs of your prospective clients, the heavier your particular boulder will be. The boulder is heavy on its own, but it’s also affected by external factors. The economy, lifestyle trends, and even your own well-being effect the way your product can be viewed by your target market.

Lightening The Load

Here’s the good news: The weight lessens for businesses that take advantage of a clear need that exists in the marketplace, either by exploiting a highly specialized niche or by broadening its services to attract a wider audience.

As you consider your company’s product and service offerings, ask yourself: Have we defined a truly unique selling proposition? Is there an emotional need for prospective clients to buy from us? Have we identified and articulated a clear return on investment for their purchase? Have you ever analyzed potential threats to your organization? The more your organization can answer “yes” to these questions, the lighter the weight of the boulder you’re pushing up the hill.

Don’t Push Alone

Now, let’s take a look at the act of pushing the rock. We all know it’s hard to build and sustain a business by yourself. As you build a team (real or virtual) to support your efforts, these additional hands can be used to push or, at the very least, support your back as you shoulder most of the weight. You’ll quickly notice that the pushing gets easier as your team gets stronger.

The greatest benefit of a team—whether employees, partners, or like-minded collaborators—is the additional support it offers. These hands (in reality, diverse skill sets) complement one another and help move your business forward.

Good managers will have their hands securely on your back. Dedicated employees will help push the boulder forward. Strong collaboration, leading to greater commitment and buy-in among your team, will always make the pushing go more smoothly.

When you take your eye off the ball (or your hands off the boulder), committed team members will fulfill their roles and help you maintain forward momentum. The standards and expectations you’ve established for your organization will support the push forward. Let’s not forget about our previously mentioned exhausted entrepreneur, struggling to accept the reality of their leadership role. When you become the key point of action within an organization you must distance yourself from the technical aspects of your work and start to manage the skills of those around you. You lose the day-to-day pulse and really must start to trust the ability of your team. Cultivating that trust is a continual process, just as important as supporting technical development. In this case, the entrepreneur needed to spend more time away from the hub of their production and use the team’s strengths to support their own endeavors, all the while giving clear feedback on top priority tasks and identifying areas that need improvement.

To make a strong team a reality, a leader must invest a substantial amount of time building capacity and capability in an individual. Building capacity means spending your own valuable time in order to deliberately grow and manage talent in top performers. Getting them ready to take on more of the boulder and freeing yourself up for more strategic and growth focused work.

Cutting Down On Resistance

Unfortunately, the laws of nature dictate that certain factors will always be present to push against the boulder. In business, these are most commonly people issues: negative attitudes, partners who are not communicating well (or at all), misguided management, or employees whose roles and responsibilities have not been clearly outlined.

Resistance can also come from a misalignment of your business values and vision. Consider if these factors are interfering with your organization’s progress up the hill:

  • Not operating in alignment with the clearly stated values that represent your organizational culture.
  • Not having a unified vision that has been articulated to all levels of the company.

If your company’s vision is not clear to your team, or if there are multiple or contradictory visions floating around, you’re adding unnecessary resistance to your boulder. Lose the extra baggage by re-examining your short- and long-term objectives; then outline specific action steps to start moving toward them.

Reducing The Slope

Once we’ve identified ways to reduce the weight of the boulder, added helping hands, and cut down on needless resistance, it’s time to shift our focus to the slope of the hill itself.

In theory, the hill will naturally level out or even start to slope downward as a business matures and builds a satisfied client base. These situations—from enjoying the ride to steering clear of the cliff—present their own equally vexing challenges.

For the moment, let’s concentrate on ways to reduce the slope of your hill. Opportunities exist in nearly every area of your business, from a clear positioning statement, a well-trained sales team, and a fully developed marketing strategy to strong vendor relationships, supportive hiring policies, and up-to-date technology. As diverse as they seem, these factors all contribute to making your company run like a well-oiled machine and cut down on the incline accordingly.

Owner Impact

1. Stop blaming others. Take the time to look in the mirror and note the actions and behaviors that you embody and how they affect how others react. This is beyond placing the blame on others and looking at how to “fix” them; it’s rooted in determining how to motivate and lead other individuals towards greater success individually and as part of the larger team.

  • Are you aware of the language and tone you use?
  • Do you attempt to approach each situation without judgment?

2. Have more coaching conversations. Before having meaningful and impactful conversations, determine whether it could be an opportunity to teach, mentor, or coach the other individual for the purpose of his or her growth.

  • How often do you have coaching conversations?
  • Are you open to being the learner in these conversations?

3. Revisit your strengths, passions, and values. Integral to your success is the intersection of your values, passions, and strengths, but staying on path requires constant guidance and recalibration. As a leader, it is your responsibility to keep sight of your own intersection as well as those of your team members and employees.

  • Do you know the values, passions, and strengths of your team members? Are you helping them reach their intersection?
  • What can you do to act more in line with your values, passions, and strengths in order to realize your maximum potential?

4. Identify the missing conversations and have them. Missing conversations linger around like the 800-pound gorilla, creating a tense atmosphere and promoting unspoken assumptions instead of working through the facts.

  • Who are the people you’re avoiding? Why?
  • What expectations need to be reestablished? What standards need to be re-clarified?
  • What are you accepting that is no longer acceptable?

5. Become aware of your triggers and manage them. We all have triggers that cause us to react out of character (either through brash action or avoiding the situation entirely: fight or flight).

  • What are your triggers?
  • Do you understand and manage against others’ triggers?

6. Build a realistic “to-do” list. Start each day by prioritizing your most critical tasks: What must get done today without exception? Some days the critical list may be two or three items, while other days it might be more. Remember: It’s not about having enough time, it’s about setting priorities.

  • How would it feel to accomplish everything (or most everything) on your list each day?
  • What criteria do you use to determine your priorities?

7. Delegate authority. We expand our team in order to increase our capacity and strengthen our offering, but often we limit the team by not giving them the authority and autonomy to make critical decisions. Give your team the “room” they need to accomplish the goals you set out together.

  • What experience have you had where you weren’t able to make the critical decision where you were stifled?
  • What level of authority can you comfortably delegate?

8. Take time to close the agreement loop. After a conversation laying out next steps, it’s important to recap the decisions and action steps to create a clear set of requests and promises (i.e., answering the question: Who will do what by when?).

  • Are you getting the proper promise to your request?
  • Does the other party have all the pieces of the agreement loop? Do they have access to the resources they need?

9. Exercise and start your day with a healthy breakfast. All studies have shown that those who eat a healthy and balanced breakfast work better, have increased focus, and have greater clarity. They don’t suffer from mid-morning exhaustion. Same is true for those who regularly exercise.

  • What did you have for breakfast this morning? Is this typical?
  • How often do you get regimented exercise?

10. Think solutions! Solutions are hard to come by if you’re stuck doting on “How did we get here?”  Focusing on alternative ways to solve the problem is much more productive and worthwhile and will prove to be the quicker route to resolution.

  • What do you do to pull yourself out from blaming others and getting stuck in the problem?
  • What could you do to help others shift their mindset to focus on developing possible solutions?

As you reflect where your business stands on the hill to success, and the weight of the boulder you’re currently supporting, recognize that it’s all part of the normal evolution of every business journey. The incline may become more or less taxing, the boulder’s weight more or less burdensome, but the challenges they represent will always exist in one form or another. It’s how and with whom you tackle them that makes all the difference.

Richard Magid founded Soundboard Consulting Group in 2000 to support business leaders in building more productive and profitable companies through the ideals of collaborative leadership. With more than 25,000 hours of coaching experience, Richard is trained in advanced facilitation, conflict resolution, and executive coaching. His strategic insights come from starting four companies and consulting with more than 250 businesses throughout the last 36 years. 

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