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Archive for January, 2015

Dinner for TwoPoliteness, courtesy, niceness, manners. I find these qualities missing in many aspects of contemporary business. People increasingly just don’t see the need to bother with this stuff.

I was reminded of this as I re-read a fine, still-zeitgeist-attuned article by Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal from several years ago titled, We Pay Them To Be Rude To Us. Ms. Noonan states, “American culture is, one way or another, business culture and our business is service. Once we were a great industrial nation. Now we are a service economy.”

Noonan says the social implications of this are making us confused and crazy. “We wear away the superego and get straight to the id, and what we see isn’t pretty.” She describes a revolution in manners. “We tore [manners] down as too fancy, or sexist, or ageist, or revealing of class biases. Just when we needed more than ever the formality and agreed-upon rules of manners to act as guard rails, we threw them aside. And now no one knows how to act anymore.”

We live in a world that is increasingly disrupted, inchoate, and hurried. The idea of manners may seem quaintly arcane and vestigial in our rushed and changing world. But I actually find simple manners more needed than ever in such an atmosphere. We need them just as we need road signs. They are practical guides for daily business, not prissy, artificial affects of a dead past. Formal manners are a business skill and one we de-emphasize to our detriment.

PeggyWhen I was a young actor (mostly unemployed) many years ago, before I became an accidental entrepreneur, I often supported myself as a catering waiter for high-society in New York. I worked mostly for a company called Glorious Food, the most elegant caterer then around.

Glorious Food parties were run by a very traditional and exacting maitre d’ named Serge. Serge was an old-school martinet who was about doing everything with precise properness. Training to become a waiter for Glorious Food involved a long seminar where you were trained how to set a traditional table, fold napkins, correctly serve, etc. Basically, I thought this was a bunch of hooey.

But one day I found myself sitting next to the daunting Serge and got to talking to him about why we did all this minutia so precisely. He quite cogently explained to me that, as silly or unnecessary as it might seem to an American (slight disdain with a French accent), there were very good and practically efficacious reasons for why the dessert spoon is placed over the dessert fork, or why the white and red wine and water glasses were in a specific configuration. Basically it made things easier for the server and the servee. It was not arbitrary or phony. It was well thought out and imminently practical.

RalphThere is a reason for manners and courtesy and it is not just to be nice. The purpose of manners is to give us a practical structure to deal with each other. It is not bullshit. It is the glue of civilization and a utilitarian road map for dealing in everyday business. Manners and polite address are not superficial. They are essential. The importance of plain manners is often not taught or explained with any depth. Too bad. It is an important tool increasingly missing in the modern entrepreneur’s repertoire.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his essay “Behavior” from The Conduct of Life (1860), “Manners are the happy ways of doing things; each once a stroke of genius or of love, now repeated and hardened into usage.” Thanks, Ralph.

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In Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville says, “We succeed in enterprises which demand the positive qualities we possess, but we excel in those which can also make use of our defeats.”

220px-Alexis_de_tocquevilleAs with so many other things, de Tocqueville is spot on about leadership. My own intuitions about leadership are formed out of an autodidactic maelstrom of hit and miss, hunt and peck experiences of getting it wrong a lot, till I finally began to get it right. In other words, I generally get good by being quite bad.

My approach to business relies on leading from weakness. By radically accepting my personal foibles, character flaws, wounds, emptiness, and inadequacy, I become paradoxically centered, whole, and compelling. My presence becomes a truthful and real thing by its very brokenness.

My doctor tells me bones grow back stronger after healing from a break, and I believe that persuasive leadership presence emanates from a worked-through, self-accepting weakness. I’m not saying this approach is for everyone, but it is certainly the source of whatever success I have had as a salesman, an entrepreneur, and a useful human being.

I was reminded of this recently in a posting by my friend Rev. Stephen Bauman of Christ Church Methodist in New York City. He tells the story of Anna Mary Robertson, who worked as a hired girl on a farm. She met and married a hired hand on the farm named Tom Moses. They moved to a farm of their own and raised 10 children. Ann loved to do needle work, but as she became older, her hands stiffened with arthritis. So she decided to try painting and found she could handle the paintbrush more easily. One day an art collector passed through her small town and saw her paintings in a drugstore.

She had been discovered-at 77 years of age. She continued to paint until several months before her death at 101.

Paul TOURNIER (portrait N/B de 1965/1970)Stephen asks, “Why do we have the wonderful paintings by Grandma Moses?” His answer is that Grandma Moses was a crippled old woman whose hands were too stiff to embroider.

In other words, out of her human handicap and frailty came Grandma Moses greatest wholeness and greatness. Her arthritis resulted in her success.

Swiss physician and author Paul Tournier says, “Acceptance of one’s life has nothing to do with resignation; it does not mean running away from the struggle. On the contrary, it means accepting it as it comes, with all the handicaps of heredity, of suffering, of psychological complexes and injustices.”

Thank you, Brother Paul.

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Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.”

41RflFJ7QtL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Seminal business writer and Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham, author of Small Giants, has done it again. His new book, Finish Big, just came out and it fills a gaping hole in the literature of the “entrepreneurial exit.” It should be read immediately by anyone who is a successful entrepreneur, but with even more alacrity by the tyro business striver. Much like what Yogi Berra intends to say in the above quote, Burlingham avers that all small businesswomen and men need to begin their businesses with a clear eye to their endgame as an integral part of developing successful capitalist enterprise.

As Burlingham puts it, “Let’s begin with a general rule: The earlier you start preparing for an exit, the more likely it is that you’ll have a happy one.” He notes that many entrepreneurs who’ve been through the whole exit process will tell you it’s much harder to leave a company than to start one. He points to the old saying: “You should build a business today as if you will own it forever but could sell it tomorrow.”

Burlingham bases his book on two fundamental assumptions:

  1. All business owners will eventually have to leave or exit their roles as CEOs and owners.
  2. Every company, large, small, or middling, will inevitably be sold or liquidated.

As entrepreneurs we do not want to think about the end of our company. It’s like people who put off their will because they don”t like to deal with the inevitability of death. (Indeed, Paul Saginaw, Co-founder of of Zingerman’s Delicatessan in Ann Arbor, MI, at one point tells Bo, “Currently our exit strategy is death.”)

Also, planning for an exit is surely the last thing any of us would want to consider when we gaze on that Mt. Everest of urgent tasks each of us has waiting on the desk every day. As Gary Hirshberg, the chairman and co-founder of Stoneyfield Farm, puts it, “Everything you do in business is preparing for the endgame, whether you know it or not. A lot of us don’t know it because we are so focused on survival.”

Furthermore, the odds are bloody well against you in making a successful exit from your firm. Burlingham points out that a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study found that only 20 percent of companies put up for sale ultimately are sold, meaning that four out of five prospective sellers are unsuccessful. He estimates that between 65-75 percent of owners who would like to sell never even make it into the market. 

Bart_Nagel_--_8147_400x400Bo describes eight common qualities and actions of owners who make good exits. They are (to paraphrase):

  1. Having a crystal clear understanding of who you are, what you wanted out of your business and why.
  2. Consciously building a sellable company over the lifespan of your firm.
  3. Allowing plenty of time to prepare.
  4. Preparing a successor and allowing time to be wrong about that choice at least once.
  5. Seeking help from colleagues and advisers who have gone through the process.
  6. Taking care of your employees and investors.
  7. As a seller, being very cautious–and understanding the essence and motivations of buyers.
  8. Being aware of what you want to do next and allowing yourself personal time to “metamorphose” into a new identity. 

Finish Big is a highly readable book, rich in original research. It draws on Burlingham’s lifetime of enduring and intimate relationships. He’s a remarkable storyteller and his book is full of telling personal anecdote. (He conducted more than 75 interviews with current and former business owners about their business exits.)

But, for me, the best thing about Bo’s Finish Big, as with his celebrated previous book Small Giants, is his pure love of entrepreneurship and the entrepreneur. This love is palpable and personal. He writes with a deeply imbued spiritual generosity and sense of service to our entrepreneurial community. Yet he is unsentimental and even can be quite rough on some of his very human subjects, though never without sympathy. Burlingham truly cherishes the questing, courageous, non-venal qualities of great entrepreneurial owners, with a writing style that is not self-aggrandizing, yet is authoritative.

Serious entrepreneurs should read Finish Big. Now, not later.

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Yogi_Berra_1956Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.”

Well, Happy New Year all! It’s resolution time. As I think about my own resolves for 2015 I must note that most resolutions are negatives of one sort or another. They usually involve changing things we’re doing wrong, like putting on weight, excessive drinking, procrastinating, etc. Research shows they seldom work.

This does not mean we are all creatures of spineless inadequacy. It just means it is damn hard to change.

Healthy entrepreneurs do change. Regularly. My own sales outsourcing firm, Corporate Rain International, has consistently become a different company from year to year for 19 years. Despite the fact that I bloody hate change, I know change needs to happen if I, or any entrepreneur, plans to stay relevant to herself or to her business world.

And even harder, the possibility of this change must be radically open. That is, not just open to incremental change–meaning doing better and better what we are already doing well–but open to actual bone-deep revolution. (I think often our failures of change are really because we think too small.)

But is this sort of existential change even possible outside the purview of religious revelation like Moses’ burning bush or Paul on the road to Damascus?

I don’t believe long-term change comes from just analyzing what I am doing wrong and “fixing” it, whether it be losing weight, starting a business, or stopping smoking. My experience is that change come first from finding out who I really am and what I really want and then choosing a living dream based in that. Many people call this integral dream hope.

Entrepreneurs are basically about the impossible. They are dreamers. They are creatures of impossible hope. Much like artists, they are about creating something new out of nothing. Isn’t that ridiculous? Yes. Entrepreneurs are ridiculous people.

3176173-1748009911-hp.jp_Whitney Johnson, co-founder of Rose Park Advisors with Clayton Christensen, wrote a lovely essay in the Harvard Business Review’s website a couple of years ago entitled, “Instead of Making Resolutions, Dream.” Johnson cites J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter gazing into the Mirror of Erised that “shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” Says Johnson:

“I suspect most of us have a desperate desire of our heart, something we may even deserve, that we don’t or can’t have. When you take a moment to look at the “why” of a resolution, you may find the fierce desire that fuels it. Harry Potter, for example, can’t have his parents, but he can be beloved. Inside of the something you can’t have, there is often the makings of something you can achieve.”

I believe that entrepreneurs especially need to devote their New Year cogitations not to incremental improvements, but to the very “why” of their existence and the existence of their business in the coming year. That’s what I believe Yogi Berra really means when he refers above to “knowing where you”re going.” It involves a seminal act of courage each turn of the year (and perhaps every day) not to just improve, but to conceptualize impossible things. The details will come later (like losing weight or making more money.) (If you want to read the best book ever on conceptionalizing the the impossible, try The Last Word On Power by Tracy Goss.)

Constant change is essential for the creative entrepreneur. It needs to be built into the process. The beginning of the year is a marvelous time for each entrepreneur to look anew on how he achieves the impossible in his deepest core and even why he is in business at all. As Jack Welch so trenchantly puts it, “Change before you have to.”

img1sHere’s a quote I love about change from British writer and philosopher C.S. Lewis. “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And we cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We constantly must be hatched or go bad.”

Thank you, C.S. Lewis. Happy New Year!

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