Most new businesses fail–mine could easily have been one of them. Obviously I survived, but I learned a lot of valuable lessons from my close calls and you can, too. And you don’t have to repeat my mistakes to learn from them.
- I Bit off More than We Could Chew
On our first strategic planning retreat we got a little too motivated. We wanted to improve our organization’s ability to perform, so we agreed upon 13 different strategic goals. We meant well, but we couldn’t do it all at once. We were setting ourselves up for failure without realizing it.
Fortunately, we were able to realize the problem in time to course-correct and re-focus on just a few key areas. Once we completed those, we were free to give our full attention to our next set of strategic initiatives.
- I Tried to Do Everything Myself
In the beginning, I tried to facilitate our strategic planning meetings myself. I was concerned about cost and I felt I could be more effective than any outsider.
I ended up so busy facilitating that I couldn’t fully participate in the conversation—yet the other team members felt disempowered because I was talking so much. When I finally hired an outside facilitator I was free to really get involved. Because I could talk less, the others felt free to get more involved, too.
- I Almost Stuck to the Plan—When Circumstances Had Changed
In the mid-to-late 2000’s we were experiencing explosive growth. We decided to put our strategic plan on hold for six months to focus on serving our clients. We almost didn’t make this decision—and that would have been catastrophic because we wouldn’t have been able to perform either task well. As a CEO, sometimes you need to be that leader and make tough decisions about how your team spends its time.
- I Trusted Our Memory Too Much
I remember during the first strategic planning meeting feeling very clear about what we had discussed and what we wanted to do. Then, over the next five or six months, that clarity faded. Some of our written goals started to just seem like something unimportant we had to check off. Others changed in our minds until we were off-track without even realizing it.
Eventually, I realized we had to revisit the plan a week or two after the retreat to make sure it really said what we meant—and make sure that the wording left no ambiguity that could lead to confusion or mission-creep later on.
The Bottom Line?
All of these early mistakes involved not really understanding my limitations or those of my colleagues and employees. I was inexperienced and overconfident—confidence is good, and it’s one of the reasons many of us are successful in the first place, but not when it leads to potentially dangerous mistakes. The fact of the matter is success does not come from enthusiasm alone. You also need to know what resources and abilities you have available and what your current situation demands—and does not demand. Learning how and where to invest your energy, and that of your colleagues and employees, is part of your role as a business leader.
- Less is more – work on only 3-5 strategic initiatives at a time
- Don’t be “penny wise, pound foolish” – Do not hesitate to hire outside help when you need it
- Everybody plays – do not dominate discussions. Give others plenty of room to speak.
- Don’t confuse the urgent with the important – Your job is to prioritize, even if that means setting aside important projects when the situation changes.
- Always review written goals after the fact, to be sure the wording is clear and unambiguous for everybody. Do not trust yourself to remember what you meant six months later.