5 Wrong Things Experts Told Me

September 12, 2010

This blog originally appeared in Innovation DAILY.

One of the dangers of being a good listener is that, well — you listen. Combine this with a tendency to believe that other people generally know what they are talking about, and you’ve got the setup for entrepreneurial enervation.

Herein, five of the most off-target ‘truths’ that business experts inflicted on my entrepreneurial soul:

1. If you are working too many hours, you’re doing something wrong.

MYTH! The 4-hour workweek? Who’s kidding whom? Maybe this is relevant if your goal is near-total retirement or some other ‘lifestyle option’. Or perhaps you have created a totally self-service online business, have outsourced the satisfaction of your personal needs, and your ambition is a life of leisure. But if you are a bootstrapping a company, or you want to change the world with your innovation, be prepared to sweat. And besides, if you know how to build a quality team and you have a worthy goal, why would you want to NOT work?

2. You should be able to define what you do in 10 words or less, and your great grandmother should understand it.

MYTH! OK, I overstated the criteria just for effect. It’s true that eventually you’ll need a very succinct and accessible value proposition, so you can get people to invest in it, and get the buzz going. But if you know where you want to go and you are only beginning to find your way, focusing on a ‘high concept’ pitch can be counterproductive. This happened in my own company!  We had been advised to sell TGI Role-Based Assessment as an ‘innovative Talent Management Solution’ and went nowhere.  Finally we reassessed the situation and realized that “RBA predicts whether a person is a top team-player…..before you hire them” and can “Make the workplace a better place to work.”

Going from point A to point B took us nine months and innumerable refinements. Start with a vision paper of about three or four thousand words. You can trim down later, but at least you’ll know the outer limits of your possibilities and can make better choices about how to achieve them. And forget the opinions of grandmothers, great and otherwise. There’s a saying that “People can only understand new things in terms of something they already understand.” My mother never got what I do. I shiver at the mere hint of what her mother would have thought.

3. Entrepreneurs are not made, they are born….with at least one Y chromosome.

MYTH! I am living, breathing proof. But I have been told this is impossible–and not years ago, when I started my first company. This was in 2010!  And you wonder why there are so few women entrepreneurs? Enough for THAT expert. But he is not alone. If we women are forever having to prove ourselves (an even more pronounced requirement when said woman is of the petite variety) then this is the one wrong thing I am actually concerned may become the truth. Man-up and listen: it’s what’s inside. Give me people with great teaming characteristics and I don’t care if they wear ties or mascara, or both.

4. You need to pay someone to sell for you because Founders can’t sell.

MYTH! This is the one you get from out-of-work sales people, and from morons. Sometimes you get the related myth that you can’t sell until you take the sales training being offered. Think about this. Who knows your product better than you? And who has more passion for it? (Hint: if you actually had an answer for that second question, you aren’t an entrepreneur.) You need these things: the ability to TALK…and LISTEN…and ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS. Enough said. Read ‘SPIN Selling’ or anything else by Neil Rackham. You’re smart enough to figure out how to apply it to what you do.

5. Starting a business isn’t easy.

MYTH! Starting a business is very easy. Keeping it going is hard. What does it take to keep it going?

First, you need to recognize that the trip from single person start-up to functioning business team is a HUGE transition. You will have to stop doing a lot of things you’ve been doing just because they had to get done, and you will need to entrust them to other people. Then you will need to get out of their way. You will need to set standards for respect and communication on the team, and you will also have to live up to them! You will have to be a better, smarter person–probably better than you have ever been, and you will need to surround yourself with people who can do likewise. (Make sure those people are Coherent, with the right Role-fit to their job responsibilities, and have great teaming characteristics, of course.)

Finally, remember that further growth means those interrelationships will have to grow too. Some people who love the challenge of going zero to sixty in record time, but they have no interest in driving a bus….or even a race car.

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This post originally appeared on the Human Capital Institute blog and has been cited elsewhere.  Here it is, updated with the most critical thought for CEOs.

1- Shut up and listen:  Every moment you speak is a moment your interviewee is silent.  Unless you are interviewing someone who will be working for you as a mime, you aren’t learning anything while you’re talking.

2- Ask SPIN questions: Help your interviewee learn more about the position and company–while you’re learning more about them–by asking them value-centric questions.  Try using what sales guru Neil Rackham, author of SPIN Selling and many other books on business communication, calls ‘Implication’ and ‘Need-payoff’ questions.  “What if you got this position and could do anything within reason to make it a success?”  “Here’s a recurring problem (describe it); how many kinds of adverse impact on our business can you identify? This gives the candidate an opportunity to ‘dig in’ and actually sell themselves on the job opportunity, while giving you a view into their thinking and problem solving processes.

3 – Stick to a plan: Remember that an interview is a form of assessment.  If every interview follows a different path, they will not result in accurate or reasonable comparisons between candidates. Not only do you need to ask the same questions of each interviewee, you need to interpret their answers in the same way.  Furthermore,  if you don’t isolate the key message points and stay focused on them, it is all the more likely that the candidate’s physical characteristics, gender, race, nationality, style of dress, etc. will creep into the assessment–and before you know it you will be adrift in unconscious biases that can lead to future trouble.

4 – Pick a team player: Consider using an assessment that is designed to measure teaming characteristics.  Hiring has always been focused primarily on the characteristics of the individual candidates. Ironically, how well they will perform on the team doesn’t come to the fore until after the hire–and isn’t recognized as a failing until after the ‘bad hire’ has done plenty of damage.  You can’t really ask people how they ‘team’ and expect a reliable answer, so you need a way to predict how they will behave.

5 – Take the high road: Even when you’re having a tough day, remember that you are making decisions of critical importance to your organization.  You have direct influence on building and maintaining a human infrastructure that will determine the success or failure of the entire organization.  Take a deep breath, ask for a second opinion if you’re unsure, and always keep learning.

And for CEOs:

Remember, you are picking someone who will be teaming with you.  Do you know what your teaming characteristics are?  Don’t fight them: they’ve gotten you this far so don’t mess with success.  Just make sure the person you’re bringing in will be three things: Coherent, a Role complementary to yours, and someone with the kind of teaming characteristics that spell success on your team.  You’re building your human infrastructure so you may as well build from your own specs!

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