Business Owner Introspection: A Practical Guide
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Men and women who are brave enough to start their own businesses have plenty on their minds and those who dare to make their way in the Government market have more than their share of conundrums to puzzle over. So it comes as no surprise that as small entrepreneurial beginnings turn into larger and larger businesses and then encounter reverses, the owners find their mental and emotional prowess challenged. What used to work, no longer does…the people they’ve trusted no longer perform…their networks have thinned out from retirements and funerals…and the Government is more opaque and obdurate than ever before.
Having worked with several owners and stakeholders in this position over the years, I’ve become an advocate of deep introspection as a first step to any attempted recovery. Why? Because unless the business owner can be honest with him or herself, it is not possible to reconcile the conflicting forces that have brought the business to its inflection point. This is chiefly because (let’s be honest here) some of the negative issues the company is experiencing likely originate with the owner(s).
Step One: Forget about the Business for a Minute. One of the terrifying things about true retirement is the realization that who and what you are no longer have anything to do with business….it is, in effect, whatever is left of your life after you eliminate everything you used to do for 60 hours a week. The business owner at an inflection point must simulate this condition in order to get grounded in what’s important and this is very difficult. I suggest a week “off the grid.”
Take seven days off…NOT a vacation trip or some such…but seven days where you give up all business matters. No emails, no conference calls, no business suits, no business lunches or dinners, no events, etc. You do anything except business. Your job for seven days is to feel what’s left of your life and determine what’s important about it…and about you. Can you introduce yourself to a person at the neighborhood restaurant without mentioning your business title? When you wake up each of those seven mornings, what is at the top of your priority list to do? Review your checkbook and your investment portfolio…how do you feel about your financial position? If you have kids, go play with them…decide if you like them or not. Go have a drink with your very best friend (if you have one) and don’t talk about business during the whole date…what did you talk about?
At the end of the week, be honest with yourself about the piece of your life that isn’t about business. What (if anything) was important to you? What did you worry about (not business)? The goal of this exercise is to figure out if you have an identity and a life apart from your business. Why? Because that discovery will inform your course of action.
Step Two: Impose the Results of Step One on Your Business Strategy. Suppose that you finished Step One with the realization that you and your business were completely intertwined…without your business identity, you have nothing. Your employees are like your children. Obviously, you are not a candidate to sell your business. And it is also obvious that you are unlikely to make any radical changes to the way you run your business, regardless of its size. You will be just as fulfilled running a $5 million business as a $90 million business. So your course of action is simple…continue doing what you’ve been doing and enjoy your days running it regardless of how it turns out.
For some business owners like you, it’s about the satisfaction of making money and they are not particular about what business they are in…their joy is in building it, selling it, putting a bundle of money in the bank, and starting another one. For these owners, the process of optimizing the value of the business and positioning it for growth and a sale is the most important thing and the owner’s identity isn’t tied up in any particular business venture. In some cases, the business is simply a means to other ends…a way to make money for charitable work, for example. The owner’s identity is established in the works that are enabled by the business, not the other way around.
The introspective recess proposed in Step One will show where your priorities lie.
Step Three: Be Honest about all This. Everyone will be happier and better adjusted if uncertainty is removed as relates to your intentions. If you do not plan to sell your company, don’t pretend that you will…but if you do, move forward with professionals. If you have no plans to share equity with your employees, don’t hint that you might…but if you do, move forward with professionals. If you have no intention of trusting outside professionals to help rescue your company, don’t bother hiring them…but if you do, be sure to do your diligence on each hire. If you have no desire to listen to third party advice, don’t engage advisors…but if you do, be sure to engage good ones and listen thoughtfully to their inputs. Be honest.
Your company may succeed or fail, but in either case it will do so with you comfortable with your self-assessment and your own set of values. And in the end, that is not only a more honest approach, it is also less stressful to all concerned.

Pete Janke