...and yet tens of thousands fail every year. Many more struggle along for years before the pain is so great they are finally put out of their misery. I am in the business of fixing businesses that are not working well and the single biggest impediment to turning a business around is that most business owners do not ask for help until it is too late (if ever).
Why would a smart business owner, CEO or board of directors not ask for help when the likely alternative is their business ceases to exist? Why would an entrepreneur choose to put their savings, home and family at financial risk when simply calling someone with the right expertise could change such an important outcome? Having worked with dozens of businesses in the past decade (and made the tough call for help for my own business before that) there is one word that keeps coming up.
You do not want it to look like you do not know how to run your business. You lie to yourself that the problems are only temporary. You do not want to admit things are not going well. Your hundreds of excuses that prolong the simple, and immensely brave, act of raising your hand and saying “I need help.”
Pride, pride and pride.
Tell me how pride will help you when there are a dozen critical decisions that need attention and you are only one person trying to figure it all out? Tell me how pride gives you the experience of someone that has spent their careers fixing businesses and knows how to triage the situation for you? Tell me how pride does anything but become what will torment you for many more years after the business is gone (And I speak from experience here, it will). Pride is as much a business persons enemy as fear. I’d say more.
Yes, it is so terrifying that no action seems the best action. The business tornado you find yourself in feels hopeless so you might as well go down with the ship. You read an article that you can learn alot from your failures so you hang onto that thought. You don’t even talk to your closest friends for fear you will seem weak or less able than them. All just more bullshit to put on the shelf next to your pride.
Where is this great pride when we realize our health is in jeopardy or someone close to us is sick and needs to find a specialist that could mean life or death. We run through fire and brick walls to find the best doctor. But when the life or death of our business is at stake, we do little or make matters worse by flailing at the problems or spending more on marketing or sales without diagnosing the problem with honesty and urgency.
Somewhere pride has become an important piece of armor in business. I want to know why. My clients, the ones that asked for help, are some of the smartest and bravest business people I have ever met. They replaced the shield of pride with courage. They dropped their armor. Their businesses are all thriving because they chose it over their pride.
So rather than decide it is a truism that business owners, boards, investors and CEO’s do not ask for help when their businesses are in trouble. I want to fight back against your foolish pride that is willing to let you and your business fail before you will ask for help.
Here is a fact: Most businesses need not fail. Your pride is killing your business and doing the same to your life and your most precious relationships.
In the middle of 1996 I sat down in “the big chair” after being promoted to President of a middle size freight and logistics company. More than 140 in staff, 6 offices and 150 million in revenue flowing in and out of the organization. While that may sound great, the real picture was not a rosy one. We were losing money. Clients had gone bankrupt on us during the last recession leaving us holding the bag. An industry, scraping through a recession, was giving away services for less than half of our normal fees and clients demanded we match competitive quotes. Our bank was breathing down my back.
I remember it so vividly. Look out across my desk was like looking at a landscape littered with business wreckage. So many things urgently needed my attention that is was hard to know where to begin. But more than anything, I felt alone in the battle. Like any competitive industry, if the staff thinks the ship may be sinking they look to jump to another ship. Our staff was more than loyal but human nature is what it is and they had families to feed. So it was up to me to deliver on the challenge I accepted, alone.
My friends, old and new, looked to me as a young but smart business person. “I am sure you will figure it out” they would say. So how could I tell them about my deep fear and worry? What would they think of me if they knew the truth?
So many things need to get done. So many things...
I picked up the phone and called a business owner I respected and asked for a referral to a business turnaround expert. Specifically I said, “I do not want a management consultant that will tell me to buy low and sell high. I want someone who will tell it to me straight and call me out on when I bullshit myself.”
My first call with his clear choice, Charlie Bahr, lasted well over an hour. When we were done I asked the one question that was left before moving forward - “Can I afford you and can I afford not to afford you.”
I made the hardest, and ironically smartest business decision in my life and spent the money we didn’t really have because getting the company back into the black would be worth 10 times what I would pay him. He supported me as advertised. I had someone who had looked out over this horrible business landscape I was in many times before. I could tell him the naked truth and he wasn’t going anywhere. He called me out on my bullshit with candor, empathy and integrity.
Within 6 months we were back on track. We adjusted our focus and made some smart moves into higher margin businesses. We executed a plan that had a manageable number of objectives.
Charlie remains one of my closest friends to this day. He was worth 1,000 times what I paid him.
I should have called him 2 years earlier. But why didn’t I? I knew the business was stumbling and tried everything I could think of to fix it. But I never asked for help. Sure, I talked to marketing, design, PR and communication agencies looking for some “secret sauce” and paid handsomely for them to build up the facade of a business that was cracking at the foundation.
But here is what I could not see and too many others never see until it is too late - It was the business end of the business that needed attention. And very few like to get involved on that side. It’s not sexy, the underlying issues are not clear and the outcome is far from certain. There is no “magic bullet” other than grinding work, tough choices and demons to face. But leave it alone in this battle and you will continue to feel alone. The end of the story ends badly. And it will end.
Over 15 years have passed since I picked up the phone and called Charlie. Since the business turned around we were able to sell it in January 2000. A few years later I hung out my own shingle to help business owners never have to go through what I went through. To help those that are brave enough to ask for help before it is too late. To realize what I have after all of these years, most business need not fail. I wrote a book about what I learned before, during and after those tough times.
Having now helped dozens of business owners, entrepreneurs and CEO’s through their own dark times there is one common threat they defeated before I could help them. It is the same demon that caused me to lose two years before asking for help.
Don’t confuse pride with integrity. Pride is masking real fears and keeping you alone with your pain and stress.