One of life’s great paradoxes: the most obvious things are often the hardest to do. In this paradox I include things like following a balanced diet, regular exercise, and being organized. I will never understand what distracts and deters us from the simple, high-gain ideas. Maybe a set of equally bad habits that feel strangely good in the moment but painful in the long run. I came across an obvious thing this week that I had not considered in quite some time. Operating in strength zones is the ultimate power booster in any organization.
The idea slapped me in the head as I was reflecting on one of John Maxwell’s teachings in his book, Leadership Gold. The chapter was entitled, “Get in the Zone and Stay There”. It is a wonderful lesson on knowing one’s strengths and building discipline to remain in that strength zone at all costs. I don’t know about you, but I would drop that one right in there with getting 8 hours of sleep and staying hydrated. Obvious!
Strength Zones and Small Business
With respect to small business owners, entrepreneurship is fueled by the very idea that Corporate America is not very good at nesting people in their strength zones. In 2001, The Gallup Organization found in a survey of 1.7 million people in the workplace that only 20% believed their strengths were being used in the workplace. 20%! When Michael Gerber talked about the “entrepreneurial seizure” in his classic book, The E-Myth (and later The E-Myth Revisited), this is what he knew. People are so determined to do meaningful work aligned with their strengths that they convulse out the door of Corporate America into something of their own choosing.
For most, the sheer energy surge of working in their strength zones propels them forward to prototypes and, ultimately, orders. Sometimes more orders than they ever dreamed of. Suddenly, as Gerber predicts, it gets chaotic. Not only are there no operational efficiencies in the business, the founder is suddenly doing work way out of his or her strength zone. It is the first big scaling event for the company, and it has much less to do with operational design as it does with the energy level required to sustain momentum. Gerber styles it as making a hard decision between “going big” and “going small”. I just love that book!
Running Out of Money, Running Out of Energy
After 35 years in the banking industry working with small business owners across a broad range of industries, I can certify for you that businesses fail when they run out of money. Behind the bank ledger, I have found that business failure is also highly correlated with an empty gas tank – no energy left for the business. The business has sputtered to a halt as the owner drifted out of a strength zone into tedious realms such as accounting, regulatory compliance, hiring and managing people, just for starters. No matter how clearly they understand the importance of the discipline, it is not a strength zone and burns energy like a classic muscle car. 5 miles to the gallon? No, 5 gallons to the mile! Now, don’t get me wrong. Some entrepreneurs thrive in some of these disciplines. But it is rare to find an entrepreneur who has strengths in all of them.
Business growth is never linear. Any business experiences multiple scaling events in its growth trajectory. At Bizzics, we like to focus on that very first scaling event – going from “me” to “we”. We find that process design and efficiency are important at this inflection point, but the zeal and energy level of the founder is paramount. In every realm, momentum depends on energy. Here are a few quick ideas and caveats to punch through the chaos of the hypergrowth that lies just beyond proof of concept.
Clearly Define the Gaps and Needs
As Stephen Covey so brilliantly put it, begin with the end in mind. Often, we ignore the reality of our needs until the fuel light comes on, and we are on a lonely stretch of highway. At that point, we will take any help we can get – just give me relief! Gerber does a great job of describing the pitfalls of a “friends and family” campaign during this time of need. It rarely works because your friends and family are not champs in these areas either! Pull over and write down exactly what you need to get done and check your personal energy level and strength set for each. You may find some opportunities for yourself. More than likely, you will be out looking for help.
The Solopreneur Network
Over the past ten to fifteen years, the solopreneur market has expanded and specialized in grand fashion. Go back to the Gallup study. This is the 80% of people who were not allowed to play to their strengths consistently in Corporate America and just said, “Enough!” Solopreneurs can give you exactly what you need, if you can state specific needs and spend time networking for the right specialist. My caveat to remember that this workforce is hungry for business as well. Providers may drift into areas that are not truly their strength zone just to get started with you. Ask good questions and ask for lots of references on the work you need done.
Recruitment and “Deal Creep”
You may decide it is time for your first one or two full-time hires to scale successfully. Please be judicious. Lying beyond family and friends is a network of good people looking for work, who may be referred to you by family and friends. Keep in mind that, even in the best of times, working a poor hire out the door is exhausting. Making a poor hire when you are already exhausted may be the final blow to your business. Finally, if you make the right hire for your specific needs today, be vigilant about asking for more. That individual mayor may not have strengths to cover new gaps as your business continues to evolve. You knew how that felt!
Operating in strength zones is the ultimate power booster in any organization. I do not think it is bad habits that distract from this truth. Rather, the intensity of focus on success blinds the business owner to the energy drain from working outside the strength zone. It is kind of like dehydration and hypothermia – by the time you realize it, it is too late. Eat right, exercise, hydrate, and for goodness sake stay in your strength zone!