Are You in Charge...or Just Feeding the Machine?

Businesses like yours grow, and then they take on a life of their own. You invent and create the robot (your business) and then the robot learns new tricks, settles into a groove, and slowly begins demanding things of you until the paradigm shifts…and you’re working for the robot.

You see this in large religious institutions where momentum builds this large empire of power and then that church or religion begins to exist for itself, primarily. By that time people can’t imagine life without it and an institution is born.

Same with government institutions. Same with political movements. Same with that neighborhood HOA a few people started in good faith.

The “machine” starts to create itself and we lose sight of the beautiful simplicity–heck, even the purpose–of that thing we create. Complexity is the enemy of purpose, and there are times when you just need to be a little reckless in taking your life back again.

Some of you are running entrepreneurial enterprises with a clarity of purpose that makes me smile with delight. The decisions you make about positioning and culture and clients and financial performance are rooted in remembering why you birthed this thing in the first place.

But some of you are hanging on for the ride, scooping shovel after shovel of coal in the train as it lumbers up the steep grade. You don’t know where you’re going or what these people around you are doing. If you could pause long enough to think, you’d realize that you have an existential crisis on your hands, but thinking about that, even for a minute, would mean that the train slows down. And dang it: these people depend on you right now and you can’t let up.

You take less vacation than the newer employees who use every day they have. You are making less money than if you worked for another firm or went to the client side, but you still carry all the financial risk.

So let’s put our heads together and try to reset this for you. Let’s pretend that this complex mechanism you run didn’t exist and you were at the threshold of starting over, with the freedom to build anything you want. Let’s keep it simple and pure, too:

  • Why they buy your thinking: you provide an objective, experienced perspective to some aspect of your clients’ marketing efforts so that they spend their marketing dollars more efficiently. That objectivity and experience are the two keys.
  • Why they buy your doing: they like one-stop shopping, they don’t yet have the capability to do it themselves, they want one throat to choke later on if it doesn’t go well, or they don’t want your great thinking lost in translation. It is always one or a combination of those four reasons.
  • Why you have a positioning: because you want to occupy a space where there are few available substitutes in order to justify a pricing premium. It’s not to stay busy, because you can stay busy without all that time and money spent on your own lead generation. No, it’s solely because you want to occupy a space where you can defend the work you do as unique.
  • Why you translate your positioning to a lead generation plan: so that you’ll have options. You aren’t courageous enough to turn down an opportunity for which your staff has the free time. But you can choose between two options and pick the better one without a lot of courage.
  • Why you have a staff instead of just doing this yourself: because clients want to make a safer choice by hiring a firm with a deeper bench, because a larger staff allows you to assemble deeper expertise in a particular area, because you have come to enjoy managing people more than doing the work, and because you want to change the world through people. Those are the only four primary reasons for having employees.
  • Why you have financial benchmarks that guide your decision-making: because little decisions need to be made in a larger context and because a firm with solid financial performance can take the risks that are important to keep you and your clients interested.

So as you look around at the institution that you’ve built, how does it measure up against that list? Are there a few things you’re doing that now–in retrospect–you’re shaking your head at and saying “I wonder what I was thinking”?

Slow this train down and figure out where you’re going and why you’re going there again. You might decide that it’s exactly the right journey. Or you might decide to make some small or big changes.

You are in charge. Whether you’re making the right business decisions or not, they are yours to own. I’ve learned more from my bad decisions than my good ones, and my mission now is to help entrepreneurial experts like you make better business decisions with experience, applied objectively. I am oddly gleeful when principals make sharp decisions, and I salute you for that from a distance.

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