'The Question'

This exercise can truly influence what your company looks like and how it performs.

By Anthony Noel

Recently, as I prepared to speak to members of a woodworking guild, I wondered if there was one question I could pose to them that would be powerful and thought-provoking enough to play a significant role in their companies' long-term success. The question surfaced more easily than I could have hoped and prompted one of the most memorable discussions I have ever enjoyed with a group.

The question was this: What, in your opinion, are the five most important qualities to business success?

Whether we are talking about managing a business or our personal lives, there are some things we do because the doing forces us to think in new ways, to see ourselves and our mission in a whole different light. I believe answering this question is one such thing.

Both in work and in life, we humans have a tendency to get so caught up in the little stuff that we neglect our larger vision. What the question really asks is: How do I define success? By setting out five specific qualities, we establish a clear vision we can work toward creating. If we do not create and maintain that vision, the daily grind can become just that - a grind. But with a clear picture in mind, a set of guidelines for how we will conduct our lives — personal or professional — our days become individual steps on the way to creating that vision. Notice I said "creating," not "achieving."

Like the old adage about success being a journey rather than a destination, the vision you are conjuring should not be thought of as an objective unto itself, but an atmosphere to be created and maintained. To do so, you need to define what success means for you, as sure as creating a piece of furniture requires some idea of its form or function.

Answering The Question can help you write that definition, but only if you give each of your answers careful consideration and support those answers with a rationale that can hold up over time.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I will share my own answers and some of the rationale behind them. But remember, I do so only to provide an example. My answers are mine and mine alone, and I suggest you seek answers which strongly reflect your particular beliefs and speak to the atmosphere you want to create and in which you want to work.

Here, then, are the five qualities I feel are most critical for business success: Integrity — In every interaction, with every customer, supplier, employee and other individual or organization with which we have contact, without exception. There is little mystery to the rationale here. If you cannot be trusted, people will respond accordingly.

An unwavering commitment to excellence — Only by consistently performing to the highest possible standards and regularly scrutinizing our work to ensure it meets or exceeds those standards can we hope to earn the long-term loyalty of those we do business with.

A strong customer-service focus — This does not mean agreeing that "the customer is always right." It does mean recognizing that the customer has engaged our services because we know how to do what they are asking better than they believe they could do it themselves. It is therefore our duty to do it so well that both we and they are immensely pleased by the result.

The will to innovate — This does not mean re-inventing the wheel just because we can. Tinkering with a basic process we know to be successful is folly and a tremendous waste of effort and resources.

Very occasionally, however, try as we might, nothing works. It is in those instances that true innovation - the will to look at things from a new perspective and make changes to our approach based on that perspective - can provide the solutions we seek. When we feel we are at the end of our rope, we must be open to change; we must have the will to innovate. Only then might we discover something that would never have occurred to us otherwise and find that it not only works, but it also works beautifully.

Passion — No matter who you are or what you do, if you do not enjoy your work or do not have a strong commitment to it, you will not do it as well or as completely as someone who does. Recognizing this and refusing to do work that does not stir our passion helps ensure we are fully engaged, and without full engagement, each of the foregoing qualities are difficult to maintain.

No matter which five qualities you find most important, it is the choosing and the reasoning behind your choices that matters. Just as you prepare drawings for the work you will create, you are, with this exercise, laying the groundwork for the type of business you want.

This is no small task. Do not rush it. Allow yourself time to be thoughtful and deliberate, to start one day and finish some other day. The more thrown together your answers are, the more likely it is that your business will look thrown together, which you do not want.

Our businesses can and should reflect our beliefs. The more they do, the more comfortable we are leading them, and the more they tend to attract like-minded employees, customers and vendors. Good luck!

What Are Your Stories?

On another matter, a recent column prompted an interesting e-mail from Curt Andersen, owner of The Country Woodworker in Green Bay, WI. Curt once worked at a since-folded company where, he says, "I actually won three bets on how long a given new hire would last. My secret was this: If the guy, for the 9 a.m. break, just had a cigarette and a bottle of pop, and then repeated the same 'meal' for lunchtime, I'd bet he would not last the week."

Curt says no one would bet with him after he won those three bets, so he told folks his secret. He adds: "You might want to have readers tell how they recognize bad hires...you might get some really funny ones."

Well, I am always up for a little fun. E-mail your stories, and I will share the best ones in a future column. And thanks for the idea, Curt!

Send e-mail to [email protected].



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