Most of Right Recruiting’s clients are privately held companies, many of which are owner operated. Of course, we also work with large, Fortune companies like Masco, Crane and GE, but the bulk of our projects are with mid-sized privately owned firms. Over the years, this has given me an opportunity to work with a lot of business owners. With some, the relationships have lasted for over a decade. This has given me a perspective into what character traits are helpful in a successful entrepreneur. Please keep in mind that a requirement of any 10 year long recruiter relationship is the fact that a business must have grown for 10 years. Candidly, if a company has worked with us for 10 years, they’ve done something right and so have we. Also, for companies that are privately held, it means they have organizationally changed as they have grown. They blasted through a few revenue barriers.
In this White Paper, I will describe 3 business owners who are totally different, both in personality and in personal experience. At the end of the White Paper, I will describe a few things that they have in common.
The first is the smartest man I ever met. Within 5 minutes, I could tell he operated on a different plane than everyone else. It simply became apparent in innocent conversation and was not the result of him showing off. He was just smart.
On top of that, he had a multiple degree Ivy League education. After college he had the beginnings of a corporate career but personal interests drove him to develop a new product, primarily for himself, I suspect. That product concept eventually developed into a mid-sized company. His products are sold internationally and his concept has grown into a series of products that have been well-received by the market.
My belief is that the business itself was created to support his personal curiosity and interests, which is in the product design and development process. To do that on a global scale, he had to build a business that would provide a platform for what he enjoys. Let’s call him Mr. Smart.
The second fellow is also smart, but more personally driven. I don’t think he has any formal education but has built a company in a mature industry into a dominant force with over 600 employees. He is in an industry that had 100’s of competitors when he started. He now dominates all of them. None of his growth has been acquisition oriented. He has taken market share from the competition. I think his success has come from his focus on the “one true thing” in his industry. He has not allowed static to enter the equation. This is a fellow who has reached a degree of success he could never have dreamt of. He is still pushing his business and has realistic plans to double in size in the next few years.
Unlike the first fellow, I believe his driving force is that he is literally the guy who has the tiger by the tail. It is not money to him. I also don’t think it is ego. It is the ride. The journey. How far can he take this concept? He will not give up. Let’s call him Mr. Driven.
The third guy is young. When I first started working with him he was 24 years old and had just bought a run down manufacturing operation with 20 tired employees. His father had been a very successful entrepreneur and, because of that, I don’t think a corporate career ever interested him. I was fascinated by the fact that of all the types of businesses he could have purchased, he chose small scale manufacturing. It was like Mark Zuckerberg starting a machine shop rather than Facebook.
Please imagine yourself as a 24 year old facing a group of grizzled employees at a small operation you just bought. Not an easy task. This was a fellow who, I think, wanted to do it the hard way. His business has more than tripled and he has just bought his second location. He is doing well.
I think he loves the creative process of business growth. To him, it doesn’t matter what type of business it was going to be. He likes putting the moving parts together and watching them become more and more productive each year. His driving force is the participation in business process building and his current business is the one that appeared at the right moment. Let’s call him Mr. Young.
I think you will agree these are 3 very different people. They are different in all aspects; age, education, experience and personality. Yet, they each have been able to build a successful business from a standing start. You must admit, that is an accomplishment that few people share. It requires risk, fear management, hard work and intelligence. Those traits, as we see with these 3 examples, can be packaged in many ways.
Yet, there are common elements to these fellows that can give us insight into what makes a successful entrepreneur. This may help those thinking about starting a business. It may help those who have a business now who want to get to the next level. Or, it may give insight into those interviewing with business owners for opportunities within their companies. Here is what binds these 3 very different people.
They know who they are. By that, they know their strengths, weaknesses and desires.
The first fellow, Mr. Smart, knew that he wanted to create products and that his mind was quick and unstructured. To get his business to the next level, he hired people who could do the things he couldn’t or wouldn’t. People who worried about, what to him, were uninteresting things, day-to-day operations, accounting, HR and all the necessary parts of a business that supported his true interest. Not only did he hire them, he let them do their job. That last part is rarer than you think. He gave up control. To a certain extent, they managed him and created a structure that focused his strengths and personal interest where he could do the company the most good.
The second fellow, Mr. Driven, knew that he had never worked in a corporate structure. His entire work life had been in very small firms or in a business that he personally started with his partner. As his business grew from 50 people to 100 people to 300 people and to 600+ people, the importance of a corporate structure became apparent. The expense of a corporate structure also became apparent. Mr. Driven worked hard to understand how different functions contributed to a growing company at the $200,000,000/year level and how that changed at the $300,000,000+/year level. Imagine, for example, having never worked at a company with an HR department and then having to go out and hire a VP of HR. How do you compare and how do you select? Mr. Driven knew that he had no personal knowledge of what makes a good VP of HR, but he knew it was a skill he needed. He asked questions and learned. He knew that omniscience did not come with success. He wasn’t afraid to not know something.
Our third example, Mr. Young knew he was, well, young. He knew that he wasn’t armed with decades of adult life experience that would allow him to evaluate people generations older than he was. For example, how does a 24 year old with no family intuitively understand the motivations of a 50 year old employee with 3 kids and a wife? It doesn’t happen overnight or easily. Recognizing this weakness, Mr. Young surrounded himself with as many senior business advisors as he could find. He joined executive groups and hired consultants who he could trust to advise him on specific business issues. There is something called the arrogance of youth. You experience it as you get older and are constantly embarrassed when you remember all of the stupid things you did when you were young- well, at least I am constantly embarrassed on my end. Maybe you had a simpler life.
Mr. Young immersed himself in a world of maturity. He challenged his sources to explain the whys behind their advice and, in doing so, internalized that advice. He kept his youth where it belonged, as a source of energy and enthusiasm, and worked to gain a level of business interpersonal maturity that an MBA program could never provide.
So, as you can see, self-awareness allowed all 3 of these people to complement their strengths and weaknesses, thus filling in self-acknowledged gaps in their business backgrounds.
Courtesy with a Caveat
All 3 of our examples are courteous people who can be personally engaging. None have that slick salesman stench that you get sometimes from the CEO suite and none have that “I am the boss” bully abrasiveness you get from people who mistake past success for permanent personal perfection. They all know that failure is just one mistake away, no matter how successful the past has been.
I think their courtesy comes from a personal curiosity about people. In my experience with all 3, they always worked hard to understand the person behind the resume. Motivations and life choices were always more important than specific skills. Interviews with them could be long because they dove into the person. They all worked hard to really know the person they were considering.
They also were the same with vendors. That should come as no surprise because an employee is just another type of vendor. They know that for a vendor to do a good job for them, they needed to provide the vendor access and information. A quick contrast –
Last year we got a call from a new potential client. They wanted someone for a key job reporting to the owner. The HR person called to tell me how busy and important the owner was and how critical a job it was. Since the job reported to the owner and was so critical, I suggested that the next step would be to speak with or meet the owner. His office was literally 2 miles from mine and I only needed 15 to 30 minutes.
That suggestion horrified the HR person. The owner wouldn’t do that. He was too busy and too important. He wanted the best people available for this very important job. When I tried to explain that any potential recruit for this important job would ask what the owner was like, I was told that the owner was, you guessed it, busy and important. I think we lost the project when I said that the recruits that he wanted were busy and important too. No great loss.
To our 3 examples the vendor relationship was not one of dominance and submission and nor was the employment relationship. They were both trades. Value exchanges on both sides and the goal of both parties was to provide what the other party needed to do their side of the trade in the best way possible. Courtesy gave the business owner insight into what the other side would need in order to give the business owner the best possible outcome. Courtesy was a tool. They were not glad-handers and they never expected anything beyond a solid business relationship and performance.
There is a caveat to all this, of course. None of the 3 suffered fools gladly. They could feel a self-promoting, slickster a mile away. If you were in a relationship with them, as an employee or vendor, you were challenged on your advice and needed to defend your answers. And your answer better be more than self-serving pap. An example –
One of the 3 called me one day. He was obviously very angry. Very angry, indeed. It seems that he had heard something about one of our projects that he definitely did not like. As he explained his anger and demanded an explanation I realized one thing. He was missing a key piece of information. That information changed the entire context of the source of his anger. When I gave him that information he said this, ” Jeff, I apologize. I understand now. Sorry I bothered you.” That was it. Storm over.
They expected the same courtesy that they gave. If their access was important in the process in order for me to do a better job, I needed to give them access in return. With one, his schedule meant an occasional 7:00 AM conversation. With another, weekends were the best time to brainstorm. That was a part of the trade. Some of those were the most useful and sincere conversations I’ve had.
In my little business, I’ve tried to learn from these fellows and maybe you can to. It is really just two little things. Know who you are and treat people with respect. Easy as pie, right?
As ever, thanks for getting this far and try to remember Right Recruiting for all of your recruitment needs.