| Keep Cool: Focus on what could work instead of what might fail |
With the economy in deep trouble, all sorts of people are offering all sorts of advice. Most of it is solid, if obvious: find a good law firm, protect your credit, bill early and often, and perhaps the most self-evident, dont hire unqualified workers.
Jeffrey Hull, a former corporate manager who now blends careers as an executive coach and psychotherapist, suggests a survival strategy that goes to the heart of the matter: dont panic.
What Im seeing most these days are small-business owners who are not only trying to shift gears in their business in the midst of a downturn, he said, but shifting their energy to stay out of the fear mode, which is even more fundamental — and tougher to do.
Hull said that when he joined Cor Business Inc., a start-up in Harrison, New York, as a partner five years ago, most of the clients were Fortune 500 companies like MasterCard, AT&T and Avaya. The main challenge for Cor Business back then was persuading executives to act on its recommendations, not helping them cope with angst.
Last year, however, many of those customers tightened their budgets and gave bigger coaching roles to their own human resources departments or big firms like Drake Beam Morin. That, Hull said, was his first brush with fear. How were he and his partners, Morgan and Julie McKeown, who founded Cor Business in 2001, going to stanch the bleeding?
The answer was obvious, he said, though they did not recognise it at first. We sat down and felt very negative, he said. We did brainstorming. That was when they realised that almost all their growth that year had been with small businesses.
Early on, blinded by what he now calls an elitist mentality, the partners had been somewhat dismissive of the newcomers. But more and more entrepreneurs were knocking on their door, as the weakening economy prodded them to overcome their aversion to hiring outside experts.
Better yet, said Hull, 49, small-business owners tend to be more creative and more flexible than sprawling, bureaucratic organisations. They are great listeners, and act much more quickly, he said.
Hull acknowledged that he had his own to-do list — what he calls his six-step programme for shifting yourself out of fear-based operating mode and getting back on track toward success. The first step, he said, is to confess that you are, in fact, afraid. Stress, worry and apprehension are all elements of fear, he said. Its scary right now being in business, but that is what entrepreneurship is all about.
The second step is to respond to that fear with calm deliberation rather than rash acts that may lead businesses into deeper trouble. I hammer that distinction into clients, he said.
The third is for businesses to refocus their efforts on undertakings they are good at. The fourth is to reframe the story by looking for new opportunities in difficult times.
The fifth is for entrepreneurs to maintain a balance between their work and personal lives. The sixth is to seek out a critic who will give unvarnished feedback about potential blind spots.
He said he used those principles in his coaching. One client, the co-owner of a real estate investment company in New Jersey, was thinking about scratching a plan to buy a warehouse and turn it into a supermarket, fearing that it would fail and he would be stuck with a lot of debt. I asked him if he was focusing on what might not work or what could work, Hull said. He realised he had done a lot of research. He knew that people had to buy food, even in a recession. He turned his energy focus from negative to positive. I believe he is going to go through with the deal.
The same client worried about his firms sluggish growth, Hull said. With revenue stuck at about $5 million, the client felt intimidated when he bumped into people like Donald Trump at an industry conference. It was a classic entrepreneurial conundrum, Hull said. You reach a certain level of success and stop growing because youre reluctant to change your ways.
He urged the two owners of the investment company to start acting like a bigger company by holding regular, structured meetings instead of communicating with each other and their staff members by frequent workplace chats. He also suggested that they assume responsibilities that played to their strengths (one was a schmoozer and a visionary, the other an introvert and numbers cruncher), rather than working out every decision together.
They agreed, he said. Theyre practising it.
In another case, the son of the founder of a manufacturing company in Manhattan feared that many of his employees, unhappy with his plan to move his factory to another borough, would desert him.
I had him refocus on the truth, Hull said. He had asked each of them if they would come with him, and they all had said yes. He had lost sight of his homework.
Most successful entrepreneurs will often recall their missteps, almost with pride, and tell of how they turned them into opportunities. Re-inventing yourself is a mark of the entrepreneurial personality — and it is never too late.
Hull himself started his first business, a consulting firm, with a partner in 1995 when he was 35, after 15 years as a corporate human resources manager, including six years as the director of the department at Booz Allen Hamilton. Though the company was successful, the partners dissolved it in 2000 to think about what we really wanted to do with our lives. The other partner went to medical school, and Hull earned his doctorate in psychology in 2003, joining Cor Business that year. He opened his private counselling practice, Life-Shifting Inc., in Manhattan in 2004.
Asked whether he and his partners feel that cold stab of apprehension that he warns his clients about as revenue at Cor Business stagnates now after six years of strong growth, Hull responded, How could we not, in the midst of the worst economy in my lifetime? Then he added, How do I deal with it? By trying to practise what I preach. You have to stay optimistic.