By Diane M. Calabrese / Published December 2019
Paper maps may be passé, but the desire for reliable advice on how to get from point A to point B is as strong as ever. If a geographic distance is being traversed, mobile devices can show—or better, narrate—the way. If the span to be covered is on life’s path, things get a little trickier. Advice on how to make the journey through life is nothing short of voluminous. And that makes it overwhelming, too.
Still, when we reflect on experiences, we can often find one that taught us a lesson applicable to a step forward or an immediate dilemma. How significant are lessons learned? Enter “life lessons learned” as a book search on Amazon and view over 1000 volumes with a title that fits the category.
Lessons learned help us in two ways. First, they can often—but not always—prevent us from repeating a mistake. Second, they can foster a sense of resilience—got through it then, can get through it again—that enables us to find a path through new territory.
In a 2017 article in Outdoor Nebraska, Bryan Stewart reviewed a few of the life lessons learned through hunting. Along with appreciation of nature and family traditions, he highlighted patience and self-reliance. The article offers perspective from a new angle at magazine.outdoornebraska.gov/2017/11/life-lessons-hunting/.
Patience and self-reliance are two big parts of resilience. Seeing a process through demands patience. It also requires work. Starting and running a business is a process.
Tell a novice, eager business owner whose head swims with excitement to slow down and take care of the details, and there might be a negative reaction to the advice. Yet sometimes it’s difficult to look at an industry colleague who is making a terrible mistake and just sit by without a word.
As most veteran owners of businesses know, giving advice is always perilous, and it’s never a good idea to give unsolicited advice. So, what can be done? Put advice in the context of a discussion. Talk about a lesson learned…as in, I once had an experience that turned out this way.
A lesson can come from any direction. For Roy Pennington, owner of Hi Pressure Cleaning Systems Inc. in Houma, LA, it was a customer who taught him something valuable.
“In my first year owning my company, I met an 85-year-old Cajun business owner, and I was quoting him some products he needed for his business,” says Pennington. “He interrupted me in his Cajun dialect, and he ‘axed me if dese were good prices,’ and then proceeded to tell me that ‘you can shears a sheep many, many times…but you can only skin him once.’”
Pennington’s response has been life-long gratitude: “Thank you Mr. Gravois, that lesson has stuck with me for 28 years.”
Are positive or negative experiences better teachers? “This is a question I can’t answer,” says Pennington. “I have learned in life there are three types of people. One, those that watch things happen. Two, those that make things happen. Three, those that wonder what in the heck did happen.”
Pennington is not casting aspersions. “At my various stations in life, I have been in all three of these groups,” he explains. “Just learn from it.”
Reviewing an experience with dispassion can often lead to good outcomes. “Experience can be a great teacher if you have the vision to see ‘what did happen and why,’” says Pennington.
Twenty years ago, explains Pennington, he did a demo and a small cleaning job for a coating company that was satisfied and incorporated his numbers into its winning bid. When his company started the work, however, he discovered the test area used for the demo had not been representative of the entire job. His estimate for hours and employees on the job was too low, and he took a financial hit. But his team completed the job as promised and to the complete satisfaction of the coating company.
The immediate negative turned into a positive. “On the next project, the coating company told me that they were so impressed with our work ethic that they wanted us to continue working for them,” says Pennington. “Ultimately they did hundreds of thousands of dollars more work with us and referred us to others of their customers on non-coating work.”
Meeting an obligation. Keeping a promise. Honoring contracts. It all has a positive effect on the whole of commerce and industry.
Pennington says one of the greatest lessons he ever learned is that there are some customers that simply must be fired. “To learn that there are some customers whom you just can’t please—and most of them know this and relish just how far they can push it—and that our company is better off without them was an enlightening experience.”
Difficult customers are quite distinct from difficult jobs. “We take a lot of pride in being the best in our markets at what we do and perform magic for customers on a regular basis,” says Pennington. Indeed, he himself has worked in soaking rain on equipment for a contract cleaner to get that contractor up and running.
But there must be reciprocity. A customer with a one-time, unexpected, and unavoidable problem in need of immediate assistance is one thing. A customer who has not maintained a machine properly and needs immediate help one time too often is something else.
“I am not advocating that firing customers is for everyone,” says Pennington. “But when you reach the point that you have the ‘Popeye syndrome’ it’s time for him to go.”
The Popeye syndrome? “Why, that’s the point when you’ve had all you can stand and you can’t stands no more,” explains Pennington.
When a customer who has been ‘fired’ does want to return, Pennington takes the time to establish parameters. “We hit ‘control, alternate, and delete’ and do a ‘system restart’ on my terms,” he explains.
Life lessons often get turned into goals. An experience with a slow-paying customer can result in a goal that firms up invoice language on payments due, interest added to late payments, and other accounting and customer screening procedures.
Recalibrating by reviewing lessons—the good and the bad of business—is a natural way to set goals for a business. The lesson review fits particularly well with a management by objectives approach (MBO) to a business.
(See the pdf on MBO at the U.S. Small Business Administration website at www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/articles/PlanningandGoalSettingforSmallBusiness.pdf.)
A contractor might tell a team member that their job function is to operate a pressure washer. In the MBO approach, the team member would have goals, such as selling one extra service to every third customer, garnering two referrals a week, etc. (The lesson the team member should draw on is that more work for the company becomes more work for the team member.)
A service center employee at a distributorship might have a goal of selling one new pressure washer to a customer per month. A design engineer at a manufacturer may set a goal of developing two products or changes in products that respond to customer requests/concerns during each year. The MBO approach puts goals in specific and usually quantifiable terms. Each employee proposes goals.
Before the MBO approach can take hold, an owner has to be able to answer some serious questions without equivocation: An owner must define the business, evaluate whether the business has a market, and determine whether the business must change to keep pace with fast-morphing customer needs.
A contractor losing business to soft washing competitors ought to be adding soft washing. A distributor losing business to competitors that service the equipment they sell ought to be considering the addition of a service center.
Results, such as a percentage increase in sales or profit, are what the MBO approach aims to obtain. Objectives, such as grow the business, are different. A lesson learned early on by owners is that a business may be growing and still not making a profit.
The debate over the value of experience as a teacher is not particularly troubling, except in one instance. In the case of security, a business owner should not wait to learn a lesson. Take the word of experts—and colleagues who have had a bad experience.
The Federal Trade Commission offers a guide for business subtitled “Lessons Learned from FTC Cases,” at www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/plain-language/pdf0205-startwithsecurity.pdf. The FTC recommends that security be the starting point, not an afterthought.
Passwords and authentication, separate and secure storage of personal information so that it can be protected when transmitting other information, and a system for keeping security current are essentials.
But don’t overlook myriad vulnerabilities. Paper, physical media, and devices must be protected. Access to a network must be secure. A service provider should have high security standards. Control access to data.
Security breaches now rival natural disasters as business-ending events because of the monetary losses that ensue. That’s a lesson a business owner does not want to learn by experience.