If It Is To Be…It’s Up To Me (doing the hard work of improving yourself)

Business owners hit some point early in the process of building their business where they lament being unable to replicate themselves. This is even more so when the business owner has some innate skill that helped propel the business forward. 

Executives hit the same point, many because they struggle to control their control freakishness. “Give me that, I’ll do it myself.” I never said they had learned leadership, but most of us have had to learn the art of coaching, mentoring, and delegating because we realize we can’t do it ALL.

Sometimes we enjoy using the phrase to illustrate why we’re so important and how nobody else can do it as well as we can (which isn’t the point really). I mean, when our kids are growing up learning to talk and walk, we’re certainly able to talk and walk better than they can (I hope), but it’s not about us. It’s about them learning to do those things for themselves. It’s about their growth. So it goes with our role as leaders – to help influence others to develop more fully. 

But today, we’re talking about personal growth. Personal improvement. Personal change for the better. Today, it’s all about YOU, not others. It’s about your commitment to yourself. 

Poll people – I have – and you’ll likely not find a single person willing to admit they’re not devoted to self-improvement. We all say, “Yes, I’m committed.” 

Now ask the bigger question, “What do you do that would illustrate your devotion?”

Some of the answers I get have included:

  • “I read books.” (or “I listen to books” or “I read online articles”)
  • “I watch videos” (or “I listen to podcasts” or “I take online courses”)
  • “I’m taking a class” (sometimes college courses, sometimes some online professional development course)
  • “I’m earning my MBA” (or some other professional advanced degree)

Most often I get stammering. Or a puzzled look. As quickly as everybody confirms their devotion to their own growth, they just as quickly hit a brick wall in their brain to articulate what they’re doing to grow or improve. 

Now, the third question is the acid test. “Other than the time or homework involved, describe the challenge you’re presented to grow.” 

That one almost always gets a stall for time, “What do you mean?” 

“I mean, how are you challenged by the activity to make changes.”

More stammering and yammering. Most often followed by something generic, but professional-sounding like, “It pressure tests my thinking.” Deeper dives don’t often reveal very much. 

In my completely unscientific survey, I’d estimate that 70% of the people eventually admit that the activity isn’t serving them very well at all. Sometimes they admit they entered the activity with high hopes it might provide some benefit, but mostly, it doesn’t. 

Doing The Work Versus Checking The Box

My clients usually lament when our time together is coming to an end. Try as I might to prepare them for life beyond our coaching session, many of them know the experience is so unique it may never be replicated. My objective is to provide a framework – a process of thinking – where they’ll be able to fly solo or be more intentional in the organic relationships they have by finding people with whom they can be safe. And people who are safe around them. 

Coaching clients who maximize our time together – and that’s almost 100% of them – never approach this work with a “check the box” mentality. But we always begin with me telling them our journey won’t go from step 1, to step 2 all the way to step 30, after which I’ll print off some framable certificate of completion. I jokingly tell everybody, “There won’t be any certificates after our time together.” I meet people right where they are and work hard to quickly help them figure out their ideal outcome. The rest of our time together is spent helping them figure out how to do the work to make that ideal outcome a reality. The clients always do the heavy lifting. Or not. 

I walk into the office. It’s an enormous office of a CEO of a manufacturing company. There are two large bookcases filled with books. After we greet each other, I’m like a moth to a flame heading toward the bookcases. I comment about one title, inquiring what the CEO feels about that book. “I haven’t read that one yet,” he says. I scan the shelf and grab another title, holding it up, I say, “This one is really good.” He says, “Yeah, I need to read that one, too.” I quit while I’m only behind 2-0. My conclusion? This CEO wants the books on the shelf but is much less interested in reading them. So it goes with some people and their dedication to their own self-improvement.

Maybe It’ll Just Happen

No, it won’t. Your life won’t just get better. There are forces required and those forces are mostly influenced by your efforts. What evidence do you have that you’re actually doing the work? Your feelings don’t count. Sorry.

High-performance cultures and anything else labeled “high performance” aren’t restricted to collective professional pursuits. In fact, it starts with individuals. You could say, it begins at home with each one of us accepting responsibility for ourselves. If we’re going to have the biggest impact to serve others, we must take on the job of improving ourselves, which starts with increasing and improving our accountability to ourselves. 

High impact influence doesn’t just happen. It results from dedicated daily work. But the work must be work that pays off – work that moves the needle in the right direction. Otherwise, it’s just motion. Or effort without any indicators if it’s effective or not. 

How will you know you’re growing if you don’t measure? If you’re not keeping some kind of score?

I have an annual physical. The first thing is measuring height (to see how much I’m shrinking as I get older) ;), then weight (to see how much weight I need to lose) ;), then blood pressure (always good), and heart rate (also, always good). Then comes the deeper dive – donating vials of blood so the full blood panel workup can be performed. Within 24 hours I’ve got more numbers than I’m able to count. Thankfully, my doctor gives me a summary, and the numbers of my results are always put alongside the acceptable range so I know if some number is out of whack. 

Until these things are measured – and then compared to what is healthy and what the past results were – there’s no way to know if physically things are about the same, better or worse. And more seriously, there’s no way to know if I might be having problems I’m unaware of or problems that might be on the horizon. 

Fearful there may be something wrong, too many people shy away from such medical procedures. “What I don’t know won’t hurt me” too often gives way to “What I didn’t know may now kill me.” Don’t be foolish with your physical health. Or your mental health. Or your spiritual health. Or with your life in general. Be courageous enough to figure out the score so you can know – with some degree of certainty – that you’re improving. Or at the worst, that you’re not sliding backward. 

Some of you may be spreadsheet freaks. When I was responsible for the daily operations of businesses (other than my current coaching practice), I’d live in Excel. Looking at the daily, weekly, monthly, and annual numbers was just a way of life so I could spot patterns and trends. My goal was to quickly spot opportunities and challenges. The faster I could see a trend that I could take advantage of, the greater the success of the organization. The faster I could spot trouble, the more quickly I could steer away from potential losses. 

I don’t spend my days doing that these days, but I still measure things. Things that are meaningful in my current work. Mostly, for me, it’s in the form of notes. Lots of notes. Notes on dates and times of meetings with clients. How much time we spent together. The challenges they’re facing. What actions they’re taking to tackle those challenges. The opportunities they now see and what they’re doing to take full advantage of them. Notes about what may be happening with them personally. A lot of information to help me be a better guide for them as together we try to figure these things out. The overreaching goal is their ideal outcome. Together, we must determine if we’re moving closer to that outcome or further away from it. Some days it feels like we may not know so we visit about how we might be able to better measure it. When you’re working on improving yourself not everything is so easily quantifiable. But still, we try. 

If you thought executive coaching was simply a bunch of conversations, then you should know the truth. It’s hard work. I’d argue some of the most profitable work you can do because it’s YOUR life, professionally and personally. There are sessions where clients (and me, too) are drained due to the strain of what’s happening in their life. There are sessions where there’s an abundance of pondering as together we ask questions for which we have no answers. But we want to go find the answers. There are sessions where there’s an epiphany – big answers that come flying to the forefront. None of that happens without a client who is willing to be vulnerable, connected, highly engaged and accepting the challenge to work hard. Those aren’t difficult when clients understand THEY benefit most from the work. It’s all about them. Their life. Their career. Their leadership. Their growth. If we’re unwilling to put in the work for ourselves, then I’d argue we’re unfit for leadership because we’re certainly not going to serve others if we’re unwilling to serve ourselves. 

In the Bible, there’s a passage directed to husbands to love their wives as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for her. Ephesians 5:28-30 “Even so ought husbands also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his own wife loveth himself: for no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as Christ also the church; because we are members of his body.”

The principle is true and accurate. A man who beats his wife is despicable. On every level. Husbands should love their wives as they love their own body. Righteous or good men don’t hate themselves or their wives. Good leaders don’t neglect their own growth thinking they can help their people grow while they neglect themselves. It never works that way. 

Show me a leader unwilling to work on themselves and I’ll show you a boss, not a leader. And their effectiveness as a boss won’t likely be very high-performing either. 

High impact influence isn’t about perfection, but growth. It’s about showing up at the doctor’s office on your annual physical in better shape than you were before. It’s about making the numbers trend in all the right directions. And when they’re not, it’s about accepting responsibility to do everything your power to improve them. Otherwise, improvement and growth will never happen. You’ll remain stuck and not for too long because the world will notice your lack of positive influence. The void you leave in serving others will be filled by somebody better than you. Somebody willing to accept the responsibilities you’re not yet willing to accept. Somebody unwilling to blame others. Somebody who refuses to be a victim. 

Today, I’m challenging you to be that somebody. Why not? What’s stopping you? Nothing. It’s just up to you to make your mind. 

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

How Do You Find Your Way Back?

The question assumes you were once there – wherever there may be. 

I’m a hockey fan. Through the years I’ve watched countless NHL players battle injuries to get back into the lineup. Each year after one team lifts the Stanley Cup you then hear about all the off-season surgeries. Players sometimes play in every game of a playoff run with injuries that would prevent many of us from reporting to a desk job. Surgery is followed by extensive physical therapy to regain the strength necessary to be a successful professional athlete. 

Physically, I clearly can’t relate. Relating to being a professional athlete is impossible for me. 😉 However, I can relate to getting back to something. I’ve had a few orthopedic surgeries (all upper body, as they’d say in hockey). Shoulders. Elbows. The physical therapy we ordinary humans endure can be hard. Doable, but difficult. I can’t imagine the rigors of being a professional athlete trying to fight his way onto an NHL roster. 

But there are mental and emotional states, too. Getting back to an improved place – a state that you once experienced, but somehow lost – can be much harder than any physical challenge. Talent and skill won’t exclusively serve you to get unstuck, to grow, to improve, or to find your way back. Experience won’t either. It requires something more. But what?

That’s for you to figure out. And finding your way back…which might more appropriately be, the way forward…can look different for each of us, and our specific circumstances. 

It was years ago, but it doesn’t seem so long ago. I’m in a locker room with a team I loved – the truth is, I’ve loved all the teams I’ve ever coached, but this team was different. Special. A bunch of college guys playing roller hockey for the University of Texas at Arlington. We’ve been together for four years. Experienced far more success than failure. But at an annual national championship tournament, a tourney we’ve qualified for each year, we come up against teams who are simply better than we are. Our talent is excellent, but just not quite enough to be elite. Reality stings when it hits you in the face as defeat. 

Sports psychology dates back to at least the 1920s (some date it back to the late 1800s). It wasn’t until the late 1970s that sports psychology began to morph into a professional science-based practice. In 1974 W. Timothy Gallwey, one-time captain of the Harvard tennis team published The Inner Game of Tennis. The book was an outgrowth of Gallwey’s experience learning about meditation and how it helped him concentrate more on his tennis performances. For many of us in the mainstream, it was our introduction to sports psychology.

Sports psychology is a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations.

In short, it’s the art and science of helping athletes figure out how to move forward to improve their performance. 

That’s exactly what executive coaching is all about, too. Helping executives figure out how to move forward to improve their performance. Sometimes it’s helping an executive figure out how to forge new paths forwards, but other times it’s about helping a seasoned executive figure out how to get back to a prior level of high performance! It’s all the same – to help improve existing performance to something higher and better! 

There are a few things that can help us find our way back – or forward – to improved performance.

One, we have to face ourselves, knowing that we are simultaneously the problem and the solution. 

We’re all vexed with bouts of doubt, fear, and anxiety. It doesn’t matter that we work hard to never show it. Privately, we all have a variety of demons that plague us. Most of them are self-generated. We might argue all day long how logical they are, or why we know they’re valid concerns, but most often the reality is we’re in our own head.  Our mental vision, which once may have been our strength, is now our weakness. 

One of the most common occurrences in my coaching is the day the client confesses they now see something they didn’t see before. Sometimes they remark having never seen it this way before. Others will tell me they’ve recaptured seeing it clearly after having been blind to it for a while. In either case, it’s a light bulb moment where almost everything changes. There’s no predictable pattern really to when these moments might arrive. For some, they happen sooner than others. But for clients willing to put in the work, they always happen!

We respond in one of two ways to the reality that we’re accountable for our own outcomes. Lots of people hide. The flee or fight response turns mostly into fleeing. Just as fast as they can! To hide from accepting any responsibility for anything. Fearful of looking inside at themselves, they find more comfort in being a victim so they can avoid feeling blame for their own lives. 

Hockey, like most sports (and other endeavors in life), has a degree of luck. That is, sometimes the puck takes an unfortunate bounce for your team, while it takes a fortunate bounce for your opponent. Every player and coach has experienced it. Low-performing or mediocre teams (and players) tend to look at such things as beyond their control. “We just need a bit of a break, a lucky bounce here or there,” they’ll say. The top-level players and highest-performing teams will always talk about what they need to do more, or better. “We have to work harder,” they may say. Or, “We have to be willing to battle near the goal,” they might say. Rather than focus on the bad luck, they focus on what they can do to improve their opportunities for greater success. Losers hide. Winners don’t. 

Facing oneself is the scariest, but most profitable thing. It’s where rare people willingly go because it’s where most of us would rather not go. It’s easier to avoid it, run away and hide – all the while believing our failures aren’t because of anything we’re doing (or neglecting to do). Nothing is our fault. That’s how the masses prefer to live opting for short-term good feelings over long-term improvement. 

Two, we have to forget who and what and focus on, “Now what?”

I’ll explain. Victims concentrate on who has wronged them and what circumstances have happened. Winners jettison such thoughts in favor of trying to figure out their very next step. Whenever we ask, “Now what?” it focuses us on the next thing WE can do to move forward, even if moving forward means getting back to things we may now be neglecting – the basics of things we may have abandoned over time. 

I was in my late 20s when a seasoned business person – a person I respected immensely for his business acumen – said to me, “You’re a very strategic thinker.” Not quite sure what that meant, I asked him to explain it to me. He went on to tell me how rare it was for somebody my age, based on his experience, to think ahead the way I did. Assuring him it wasn’t something I consciously did, I told him it felt mostly how viewed things. We talked a lot about consequences, something I told him I always considered by mostly asking, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” and “What’s the best thing that can happen?” He encouraged me to continue the practice because in his estimation, “It’s an enormous competitive edge.” 

As we talked about business strategy and thinking ahead he was curious why I wasn’t paralyzed by vetting every conceivable option. It was the first time I remember saying aloud that I really only focus on the very next step. I wanted (and still do) to get the very next step as right as I possibly can. Then replicate it with the next step until I reach the goal. 

It would be terrific if we knew every step ahead of time, but anybody courageous enough to try anything knows that’s impossible. It might work. It might fail. Until we do the very next thing…we’ll never know! 

Three, we have to figure out for ourselves when to keep going, and when to quit.

Among the many reasons my coaching rarely involves advice-giving is that it’s not my life, but my client’s. One of the toughest challenges we all face is knowing when we’ve given it enough of an effort…and when we need to keep pushing forward. 

The Clash sang about it. “Should I stay or should I go?”

Only you can decide. Others can help you figure it out, but go back to that first point – you have to be willing to face yourself and accept responsibility for everything! 

Some questions can help.

If you quit now, will you regret it? 

If you don’t quit now, are you willing to invest whatever resources are necessary to keep going?

What signs do you have that this isn’t likely going to ever work?

What signs do you have that this just might work if you keep going?

The Bottom Line: Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

Many years ago while sitting across from another CEO who was struggling with a particular marketing challenge I suddenly asked him, mostly out of curiosity, “Have you tried anything that worked better than anything else?”

He thought for just a second or two and said, “Yes, we did (X, Y and Z – he told me what they had tried in the past with some success).” 

“And what worked better than anything else?” I asked.

“Yes, it was working fairly well,” he replied.

“What happened?” I inquired.

He went on to tell me how the team kept looking for something that might work even better. On further inquiry, it turned out the team executed the strategy that worked better than anything else for just 6 weeks. Six weeks! Those of you familiar with marketing know 6 weeks isn’t long at all. Truth is, in many circles 6 weeks hardly qualifies as a good “test,” much less a well-executed strategy! 

My fellow CEO was a peer, not a client. At that moment I jokingly – but quite seriously – encouraged him, “Do more of what worked and stop doing all the things that aren’t working.”

I wasn’t being snarky, which I am wont to do. I was being dead serious knowing how blindingly obvious the statement was – and is. These many years later I can tell you I’ve seen it play out over and over again. People pursuing some new better answer only to realize they may have had the answer before. It may be time to get back to what once worked better than anything else. Sometimes we have to find our way back to success.

Back. Forward. By now you understand they’re the same thing. They represent growth, improvement, progress – the art of getting better!

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

Breaking Through Your Own Resistance To Accept Help

It doesn’t’ happen often. In fact, I’ve gone on record that in all my years of serving leaders I’ve only encountered one client who was utterly disagreeable to be helped. But that doesn’t mean all of us don’t encounter times – perhaps just moments – where we’re resistant to asking for, or accepting help even though we know we could use it. 

Why? Let me give you the 2 biggest reasons I’ve discovered in helping people.

Pride. Leaders and executives have pride. Not necessarily the harmful kind – arrogance and hubris. Mostly, good leaders have pride in themselves, their accomplishments, and their future prospects. Great leaders have pride in their teams and organizations. 

The downside is that this positive pride can make us resistant to vulnerability. The whole “never let ’em see you sweat” mindset that we so often need works against us in these moments where we could likely experience some significant growth. We’re not accustomed to turning it ON and OFF, so turning our pride down enough to see the safety that can exist with somebody who can help us…it’s difficult. It requires a firm commitment to our own growth and improvement. Only when our growth matters more than our pride will we likely submit ourselves to the vulnerability necessary for the task of personal and professional growth.

Lack of safety. More than any single thing I’ve had clients tell me of all the times they sought or would have accepted help, but the right person never showed up. Those who did show up weren’t safe enough for them to fully open up. Mostly, clients report a boss who attempted to coach them and they simply felt it was a no-win situation for them. I know much is written about how we must coach our employees at work. And I agree. But there is a specific kind of coaching that very few bosses can successfully pull off – the kind that is personal enough to really move the needle. You could survey every client I’ve ever served and I guarantee 100% of them (save one 😉 ) would readily tell you that their biggest breakthroughs happened when they were most vulnerable. Not when they were least vulnerable. But they’d also tell you that they felt completely safe with me. It’s the advantage of professional coaches who have no other dog in the hunt other than helping the client excel. I don’t bring any baggage to the relationship. There’s nothing the client owes me, other than their best effort to their own growth and improvement. And they basically don’t owe me that, but they owe that to themselves! 

So what can we do if we’re determined to grow and improve? 

One, make up your mind.

Your determination to improve is the most important ingredient. Nothing can replace it. Until you fully commit yourself to your own growth and improved success, nothing else matters. Tactics. Strategies. Collaboration. None of it will make any difference until you are fully vested in your future potential being realized. 

Two, jettison excuses. Accept responsibility.

Second, only to the first is this one – to get rid of all the blaming and excuse-making. Included in this is to get rid of living in the past. 

Sometimes we can make up our mind that we’d like to improve, but we’re cursed with some lingering issues of being victims. It’s so easy to do. To relive all the woes of our past and find excuses why we played no part in it. Even easier is to never forget all the injustices or ill-treatment we endured. It helps us explain some of our current challenges. We’re the way we are because back years ago we had to endure certain things. That becomes our excuse for why we’re still engaged in some behaviors that may not be serving us so well. 

My coaching is intently focused on helping clients paint themselves into the corner where all the excuses go away. It’s the only place where any of us can truly achieve growth. I call it a corner because only when our backs are against the wall will we realize there’s only one way to go – forward. And forward only happens when we suck all the oxygen out of the room filled with our excuses. Like fire, our excuses need fuel. As long as give it to them, they thrive and spread. Once we willingly put ourselves in the corner where we can no longer use them, we begin to deprive them of the food they need to survive. In my experience, almost all clients find a pivotal moment – a place they come to – where they resign themselves to “no more excuses.” The quicker we surrender to responsibility and accountability, the quicker our excuses die…the faster our progress!

Are you to blame for everything that has happened to you? No, of course not. We’re all subjected to people and circumstances beyond our control. Even so, we must accept responsibility for our own lives because the alternative is unacceptable for every high achiever – to be a pawn in life, unable to impact anything that happens to us. Far better to look at our life as being in our control to do whatever we can to influence the outcome – what I call, “our ideal outcome.”

Three, figure out your ideal outcome. Pursue it vigorously.

This is among the chief reasons it can be tough to find a safe person. It’s also THE key reason why professional coaching works. 

Bosses who seek to mentor or coach have an ideal outcome associated with your career. They want and need things from you. Nothing wrong about that, it’s just how it is. 

Friends who might be filled with advice have another ideal outcome for you – and for themselves. They want to be your friend and will likely tread carefully to challenge you.

What you most need is compassionate challenges from somebody who has no vested interest in your outcome except you achieving your very best. That’s why safe people are hard to find. People who aren’t beholden to you for anything other than for you to achieve what you most want! 

Clients often find this part of the process more difficult than they first imagined. It’s much easier to enumerate what you don’t want, but to hone in on what you most want – your ideal outcome – can be hard. Especially since many of us haven’t really put in the work to figure that out.

What do you most want to happen? 

What weaknesses do you most want to remedy?

What strengths do you most want to leverage even more?

What outcome – what result – do you most want? Right now?

Having a safe guide to help us figure that out is powerful. Until we know exactly what we’re aiming for, then we can blindly strive for things we may not fully want. 

Leadership: Always Be Straight With People (Part 2) - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 256Have you ever found yourself pursuing something you really didn’t want? Something you felt others may have wanted for you? It’s likely everybody has known that experience. Few things are more disappointing than reaching a destination you never really wanted. It’s the Abilene Paradox. 

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a [50-mile] trip to Abilene for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Be careful where you go. Make sure it’s where you most want to go. And remember, it’s always wiser to run toward something than away from something. 

Be a leader. Let it begin with leading yourself toward an improved version of yourself.

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

Bula Business Builders: Helping Small Business Owners Hit The Trifecta

Every night while sitting in the front of the TV I’d open a large accordion file where I kept manufacturers’ literature on high-fidelity stereo gear. The file was alphabetized with a slot for every letter. Advent speaker literature went into the A. Thorens turntables into the T slot. I started this habit while in junior high because I loved music and the gear used to play my favorite records. All this cool equipment was far beyond my means, but nightly I’d look at all the features and specs and dream. I’d visit stereo stores as often as possible to hear systems I could only dream about owning. Glorious! That’s what it was to sit down in a listening room to hear a record the way it should be heard. Full fidelity. I’d leave each store with whatever new product literature was missing from my growing collection. 

A passion for music and stereo gear propelled me to walk into a stereo store when I was 16. No selling experience. No real work experience except manual labor for my dad’s business, home construction. Stepping and fetching mostly and cleaning completed construction. Not exactly the kind of work that would make your heart rate increase, except due to exhaustion. 

Somehow I wound up in front of the owner of this stereo store – a store with four sound rooms, each armed with those 70s fixtures, sliding glass patio doors. Sitting in his office he began to grill me about products, including products his store didn’t carry. I quickly was able to answer all his questions, including the only one I still remember. “What do the model numbers of Marantz receivers represent?” No problem. I knew the answer, “Their wattage per channel.” He hired me right there. My first real job working for a small business owner. Straight commission. I was hooked.

In 2007 I formally began to serve small business owners. Years of being in the trenches of working to achieve the trifecta of business building compelled me to serve “my people.” People with whom I have more in common than probably any other segment of business people. Small business is close to my heart. Admittedly, I’m biased heavily in favor of the entrepreneur working hard to make a difference in their part of the world. 

In 1984 I was 27 years old. I was a couple of years into my first #1 leadership role running a business with $14M in annual revenue. The trifecta of business building became a reality sitting in my office one morning battling the issues of the day. As I pondered a variety of challenges that day I had a rare epiphany, all my challenges in running a small business could be distilled into three categories – the three things that were most important in operating a successful enterprise.

Getting new customers

Serving existing customers better

Not going crazy in the process


Nothing else mattered. I began to think of my business that way. Every action fits into one or more of the categories. From purchasing to merchandising, to cash flow management, to profit margins, to personnel, to operational efficiencies…you name it, I could instantly make it fit. 

Over the years as I encountered other operators of small businesses I learned that we shared similar frustrations and challenges. But I also learned that if I was going to achieve stellar results – I was never satisfied with being good…I wanted to be remarkable – I’d have to do something others weren’t doing. Perhaps I’d have to avoid doing what others were doing. Sometimes you have to be like Captain Kirk of Star Trek and go where nobody has gone before. Besides, it’s fun!

Helping small business owners is a passion. Coaching city government leaders is also a passion. These days, they’re more congruent than you may think because they’re both about high impact influence. I define leadership simply as influence and doing for others what they’re unable to do for themselves. And both small business operators and city government leaders must excel at that. Both have their own challenges and while the trifecta of business building isn’t exactly in play with city government, parts of it sure are – serving existing customers (citizens) better and not going crazy in the process. 

The work is completely relationship-based. It’s never transactional for me because I’m just not a transactional guy. I value transactions – people who decide to buy – but I’m not the guy able to take people’s money, deliver a product and service, then be done! Nothing bad about doing that, it’s just not what moves me most. What moves me most is seeing the story unfold – establishing an ongoing relationship of some sort. I’m not talking about becoming best friends or intruding into people’s lives, but I’m driven to make a positive difference, a difference I’d like to see as I watch clients and customers put in the hard work to grow, improve and change! Nothing is more rewarding. 

Getting New Customers

Every small business needs new customers in order to thrive. Horror stories abound of small (even mid-sized) businesses who relied too much on a single or few customers. A small candy manufacturer landed a major retailer. They threw a party and figured their future was secure. The initial purchase order for the big customer was the largest they’d ever had. A game changer! They ramped up production to meet the demands of their new customer, who paid them clockwork. Major investments were made in production equipment and additional shifts were hired to meet the demands. Explosive growth fueled their euphoria. 

By the third series of purchase orders, things changed. The big-box retailer told them how much they’d pay, a significantly lower price than before. It was pricing that put a serious cramp on the profit margins of the little manufacturer. What do you do? They felt they had no choice but to meet the demands of the higher price. By leaning too heavily on one customer, they put their entire company at risk. And the story didn’t end well for them. They neglected the first of the trifecta – you must continue to get new customers!

Serving Existing Customers Better

Few things are more valuable than building a solid customer base – a base of loyal, repeat customers. Small business owners quickly discover how much easier it is to get a customer to come back than to get a brand new customer. It costs less. It fuels more word-of-mouth. There are many benefits to serving existing customers better!

Give them something to talk about. Jeffrey Gitomer is famous for saying people can say one of three things about you: something good, something bad, or nothing. And it’s up to you what they say! He’s right. So why not give people something good to say about your business?

This part of the trifecta impacts operations, which translate not to just existing customers, but every facet of the enterprise. This is where businesses must focus on systems and processes that produce predictable results. Consistently. Without fail. 

Too often the exceptions are the rule for small businesses. It doesn’t have to be that way. If we’d approach our small businesses like airlines or fast-food chains, we need to figure out to deliver superior service every single time.

This is THE key to high performance – deciding it’s what you’ll do, and who you’ll become. Sounds simple I know, but it’s true. And simple. Not easy, but simple!

Think of the worst experiences you’d have as a customer. For many of us, it may have to do with a cell phone or TV service provider. Enormous companies with lots of resources. Companies that mostly choose to be transactional, not caring if you’re happy or not because they figure saving a dollar trumps making you happy. “We’re no worse than anybody else,” is an unofficial battle cry for such companies. 

Google the various reviews of companies and you’ll see page after page of horrible stories, stories of NOT serving existing customers well. Rather, treating paying customers poorly. And because they thrive anyway, they can be lulled into feeling good about themselves. Maybe they’ll survive. Maybe not. Deep pockets help insure feeling safe. Small business owners don’t have that luxury. And that’s a good thing. No, that’s a great thing. It’s why innovation happens in small businesses. And why patrons enjoy supporting small businesses. 

Comedian Steve Martin gave a famous answer to the question about how to become a famous comedian: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Let that be our mantra as small businesses. We want customers to become clients, repeat customers.

Not Go Crazy In The Process

This part of the trifecta may be the hardest to achieve, but it’s doable. Small business owners who have plenty of new customers and who are serving existing customers well may find themselves sacrificing their entire life. Too many small business owners have given up marriages, children, and health as they worked to make their company thrive. Worth it? Well, each person can decide for themselves, but I don’t think so. Our sanity, and our health and relationships matter!

It’s common to encounter small business operators who truly believe this leg of the trifecta may be impossible. That’s only because my favorite quote is in play…

Everything is hard until it’s easy.

Seeing things more clearly – or seeing things for the first time – requires hard work. But hard doesn’t mean impossible. Like going to the gym for the first time in years and using muscles that haven’t been pushed in a long time, it can make you sore. And tired. But if you’ll persist, strength will come. What began as hard will become easier. 

It pains me to see small business operators struggle in any of these three components of the business building trifecta, but this one is especially painful. The human toll on a small business operator, and the staff, and family, and friends is enormous. Financial rewards are worthwhile pursuits, but don’t be fooled into thinking they’re more valuable than the people you love – and the ones who you love. 

Can You Have It All?

No. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that every business owner can hit the trifecta. Most won’t, but many will. Some will figure it out by hit and miss (mostly miss). Others will hit on something at just the right time, fearful people will figure out they got lucky. Others will figure out that their accelerated growth is easily worth investing in some help – somebody who can help them figure things out more quickly. Somebody capable of helping them make the most of their resources while giving them more time and opportunities. 

You don’t have to have it all. You just want more of what you want and less of what you don’t. That IS possible. But you have to decide for yourself. You have to make up your mind about what you want and how determined you are to achieve your ideal outcome

Our work dubbed Bula Business Builders isn’t about us achieving our ideal outcome. It’s about YOU achieving your ideal outcome. Ideal outcomes change and that’s fine. When I was 35 I wanted a very different outcome than the one I want today. And the one I want today is different from the one I wanted just a year ago. Clarity of our ideal outcomes is important along every phase of our life. It’s a journey with an intent focus on the destination. We have places we want to reach in our lives and in our businesses. Like kids in the car moaning, “Are we there yet?” — we hope to enjoy the ride, but we’re headed to a destination that beckons us. We want what we want. Bula Business Builders is bent on helping you get to where you most want to go. And working feverishly to help you there faster!

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

Rest & Rejuvenation: How Stepping Away Can Improve Perspective and Performance

Now that the 30-Day Micro Leadership Course is complete I’m going to keep my word and step away for a bit. As I prepare to shut things down for a while I’ve been thinking about rest, rejuvenation, revival, recreation, and all the various things we can do to help ourselves improve. Last week I was talking with a couple of people about the things they do to catch their breath. We’re all pretty driven people and all of us are experienced, mature leaders (that means we’re all in our late 50s or early 60s). 😉 “What’s the longest you’ve ever stepped away?” I asked. There was a lot of mental calculating going on as we all tried to remember our various vacations and time away from the daily workload. Nobody answered so I asked, “Have either of you taken off 2 weeks straight…or more?” The answer to that came almost instantly. From both of them. “No, never!” “Me neither,” I answered. 

Then for the next few minutes, the conversation was solely about why taking extended time away is a bad idea. I pushed back, even though I had no clue what I was really talking about because I’ve never taken more than one week off. Even so, I wasn’t sold on their logic that the cost of coming back was so high. I questioned if they had mental blocks about being gone, fearful they might not be missed. Or worse, fearful things might go even better in their absence. They chuckled and claimed that would be wonderful if that were the case. 

Well, that was too much of a lob pitch for me. I had to swing for the fences and asked us to all talk about what it might take in order to make sure our absences improved things while we were gone. I don’t manage a team these days, but I’ve spent my career doing it so we constructed scenarios of what we might need to do to prepare for such a reality. 

What about you?

What do you do for rest and rejuvenation? 

Do you find yourself not wanting to step away for fear of “fill-in-the-blank?”

It’s worth wrestling to the ground so you can figure it out. But today, think about how stepping away can improve things for you. And your leadership. 

Sometimes it’s not about doing nothing. It’s not necessarily about playing either. It could just be about a change of scenery. 

This past Sunday afternoon I was watching Dallas’ own Matthew Stafford soundly defeat Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay team. While the skill surrounding Stafford is substantially different, the change of leaving a basement-dwelling NFL team like Detroit for the sunny outlook of a talented Los Angeles Chargers’ team has clearly given Stafford new life. The TV crew commented how Stafford, in spite of years of NFL experience, has never been in a game of such magnitude as playing against the defending Super Bowl champions and Tom Brady.

It may be that your career is stuck because you’re struggling with a losing culture, or teammates who lack the competence to excel. I’m optimistic, but I’m not crazy. Not everybody can be or do anything they put their mind to. I know their moms all told them that was true, but moms can be too nice! 😉

Henry is a supervisor for a small manufacturing company. He’s been there almost 5 years and confesses he’s hated almost every moment of it. When I ask why he stays, he says because he’s long thought he could influence the outcome, but now he’s pretty convinced it’s a losing effort. The details are heartbreaking. Here’s a highly motivated manager who described years of building a team he has supreme faith in. They’ve proven their effectiveness and efficiency in spite of upper management’s ineptness. I ask, “Is your team the reason you stay?” “Absolutely,” he admits. These people are doing great work and Henry used to be convinced the culture of his team would be contagious. It never happened. Henry now seems convinced it’s a lost cause. 

I don’t know what he’ll do, but it’s evident something needs to change so Henry can remedy being stuck. He’s anxious for growth and improvement. And in this economy, he realizes the opportunities may be at the highest of his short career. I challenge him to avoid being jaded and urge him to figure it out sooner than later by accepting responsibility for his own outcomes. The last thing I want to see is a young leader lose heart before he turns 30. Henry may decide a change will do him good. Such dilemmas have nothing to do with vacations or time away. Even a 2-week vacation won’t remedy Henry’s problems. 

But a vacation might help Henry figure out what his next steps should be. Rest and rejuvenation are largely internal, self-induced awareness benefits. 

Exactly 3 years ago, in October 2018, my wife and I stepped away for a few days. It wasn’t even a week. Our family experienced a crisis that required a change of scenery so we could figure some things out. Mostly, we just needed to process some things because there weren’t really actions to take. Could we have done it staying home? Maybe, but it was hard and we felt like that old Southwest Airlines commercial punch line, “Wanna get away?” Yes, we did. 

We went away where we could be out in the woods, walk trails and get away from the hustle of the city. It didn’t remedy our pain, but it gave us improved coping skills. Things didn’t magically improve, but our mental strength and our spiritual resolve grew. Had we not made that trip I know our struggle would have been even more severe. 

Even if life is just ordinary – whatever that means – and the pressures aren’t abnormally great, stepping away can give us a new viewpoint because our mind shifts focus. It’s the same power as those morning shower moments when some folks claim their best ideas happen. It’s the power of getting unstuck! Getting our minds off their current, or ordinary course can help us see and think differently. Better. 

Catching our breath is required whenever we’re winded. However, when it comes to our careers we don’t often know we’re winded. Some of us – my generation is especially guilty – think there’s some medal given for battling through adversity without giving up. Or quitting. Even if it’s just quitting for a week or two to take time off. 

Spending more time at work versus spending more time with family and loved ones. I’m not debating those issues. I happen to think the people we love – and our obligations to them – matter more than our careers. But truth is, they both matter. And it’s not a contest. We’re mostly greedy. We want both to be great. We’d rather not sacrifice either one. But if we look at it merely from the perspective of how our lives are improved, there’s no arguing how getting away, looking at someplace new, experiencing something out of the ordinary, and shaking up our daily routine helps clear our vision and strengthen our resilience. 

“Getting our minds off” a thing can help us become more creative in figuring out that thing. It’s counterintuitive, but we’ve all experienced it. A family gathers for a meal after a funeral. There’s crying, but there’s also laughter. People reminisce. They joke. Collectively they deal with the tension in their own individual and collective ways. It’s grief management by not sitting alone quietly falling to pieces. And there are likely some of those moments, too. 

It’s all a process. Grief. Handling situations. Figuring things out. But I’ll tell you the benefit I’ve discovered in stepping away. Having no point. Which is completely the opposite of my coaching focus with clients – the pursuit of the ideal outcome. Stepping away, for me, is the pursuit of no outcome. I just want to be. In the moment. And see what happens. Removing the pressure to figure things out has the magical effect of helping me figure things out. The lower I can get my expectations, the better. Which is ridiculously hard for (another benefit of getting away). 

As I enter a short, but hopefully productive fallow period, I’m working hard to reduce or eliminate my expectations. I know if I can do that, even for a few days, it’ll pay off. It always does. Besides, life will still be here when I get back – and no, I won’t be dreading that. If I did, I’d figure out a way to do something else that I wouldn’t dread. So there’s that! 

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

30-Day Micro Leadership Course (September 30th 2021)

Session 30. We’re completing this short 30-Day Micro Leadership Course. My goal when we began was to provoke thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Mostly, I wanted to help you challenge yourself and your enterprise to higher human performance! My role isn’t to tell you what to do, or how to do it. My role is to help you figure it out. I want to help you see more clearly and take positive actions that will move you forward. Always forward!

So with that, let’s wrap up our 30 days together in this course. No, it’s not the end of this podcast. It’s just the end of this 30-day series. I’ll be taking a break after today so don’t panic if you don’t hear from me for a week or two. That’ll give you an opportunity to catch up and perhaps go back to review episodes of this course that most resonated with you – or the ones that you felt might be most needed. 

Pursuing The Ideal Outcome

This is the objective of all this work. We’ve mostly learned how beneficial it is, to begin with the end in view. Everybody says it and claims to practice it, but in my experience, very few people put in the work to detail it out. When pressed, people find it challenging to articulate or specify in writing their ideal outcome

Put in the work. Sit down and write down your ideal outcome. Your leadership will never exceed your willingness, courage, and dedication to improve.

Be detailed and specific. You’re not etching it in stone. Ideal outcomes are always subject to change because life happens. Our circumstances and situations change. People come and go in our life. Relationships change. Some grow. Others diminish. Many factors impact our ideal outcome so give yourself permission to go with it and change it as needed. This is your life and your career. Take control of it. Remember, you’re writing a hero story, not a victim story. Construct your ideal outcome accordingly. 

It’s The People Who Matter!

Leadership has an obvious point. It’s relationships with people. I’ve been beating the drum of leadership being all about influence and doing for others what they’re unable to do for themselves. The beneficiary of each of these activities is OTHERS. But more precisely, it’s about your ability to relate well to others. 

High-performing enterprises behave differently. They’re willing to do what others aren’t. They behave differently because they think and believe differently. Those thoughts and beliefs drive them to act differently. And it impacts all the relationships. Vendors, suppliers, strategic partners, employees, leaders, management, customers – all these relationships are superior in high-performing organizations. That makes an enormous difference in the outcomes. 

Part of relationship building is mutual benefit. One-sided relationships aren’t tolerated in high-performance cultures. That is, a person unwilling or unable to contribute isn’t tolerated. Suppliers unwilling to meet the expectations aren’t either. Up and down and throughout the operation, relationships must be beneficial, not detrimental. 

There is a relentless pursuit of the ideal outcome coupled with compassion where judgment is focused on the honest pursuit of the ideal outcome. That doesn’t mean everybody is perfect. Mistakes will be made. Errors will happen. But in the context of learning, growing and trying things. Innovation will always be fraught with imperfection as we pursue perfection. The relationships are forged in willingness, intention, and wisdom. Relationships are damaged by unwillingness, selfishness and foolishness. 

From employees to customers and every relationship in between, high-performing organizations raise the bar over which everybody must jump. Expectations are highest in excellent organizations. 

The rich get richer because excellent performers attract more excellent performers. They want to be surrounded by and enjoy a relationship with other excellent people. 

College football is underway as I hit the record button today. This weekend there will be lots of games played. Some teams haven’t had a winning culture in a long time, if ever. We look at the colleges that seem to always find their way to the top of the rankings each year and we could think they’re lucky, they’ve got more resources…we might even think they cheat. We can think whatever we want to think. The reality is success breeds success. So the elite college football programs can recruit better players because better players know if they go to those schools they’ll have better players as teammates. They know they won’t have to worry about having to play with somebody who is unwilling or unable to compete at the highest levels. 

What do your people know? 

Do they know there are weak performers whose low performances are tolerated? Do they know that if they work harder and outperform their teammates, nobody will notice or care? What kind of relationships exist internally and externally? 

Look at every relationship carefully. How do leadership and management relate to the people within the enterprise? How do employees relate to management? Is there trust? Is there safety? 

How are vendor and supplier relationships? Describe them. Are they ideal? Are they true partnerships or are they more adversarial? 

How are your relationships with your customers? 

As you survey all the lines that connect us as humans, think carefully about how you might accurately describe these relationships. How congruent are your descriptions with your ideal outcome? How are you closing the gap to make them more as you’d want?

Predictable Results

Every high-performing organization produces predictable results. Their work is as precise as flying an airliner. Or as precise as a fast-food drive-through. They get it right all the time, with few exceptions. And when there are exceptions, they recover well. 

Things that were once difficult are now easy. Nobody even thinks much about it because processes and systems are in place and people are devoted to following them so the same result occurs over and over and over. Every single time. 

With such an environment in place, people can now get busy tweaking and honing things. Making things more perfect. 

There’s something powerful about making a 1% improvement when you’re already performing at a high level. It’s dramatically more impactful than getting a 25% improvement from a poor performance. Excellent organizations are relentless in making things even better…then better yet still. It’s the game everybody wants to play and win.

Success is a habit. So is losing. That’s why leadership is so important. Somebody has to show us the way forward. Especially when we can’t see it for ourselves. 

Last week I heard a college football coach, Sam Pittman of the University of Arkansas (a team that hasn’t enjoyed much success in recent years but got off a 2-0 start this year) say that when he got the job he made sure he and his coaching staff yelled the loudest in practice when players performed well. That’s a leader who understands the power of relationships and achieving predictable results. He insists that praise and celebration for getting it right outshine the loudness against getting it wrong. 

Excellent organizations focus on finding people doing great work and they celebrate it. Poor, even average organizations, are fixated on catching people doing things wrong. That focus and behavior demonstrate the difference in their outcomes. The one focuses on great predictable results. The other concentrates on mistakes, errors, and mishaps. 

Attend any youth sporting event and you’ll hear parents hollering instructions to their kids. If barking out orders worked, then every kid would be a superstar. But most aren’t. Largely because they’re learning and don’t yet know what the parents “think” they know. In too many instances, the kids will lose whatever love they may have for the game because the adults in their life can’t understand one fundamental truth. A truth that is summed up in my all-time favorite quote, a quote I’ve never been able to trace back to its original author…

Everything is hard until it’s easy.


All the things we’ve talked about in this series are relatively simple. Nothing is complex or difficult to understand. Some things may be tough for you to believe, but belief is your choice based on the evidence. Ignore it if you’d like. Choose to believe whatever you’d like. I’d encourage you to believe the truth and find a way to understand that you and your career can go much further, faster. It’s up to you. Serve yourself and your organization. 

I’m going to end this series with a common story used in my coaching. A simple story to demonstrate the power we each have to choose what we think and what we believe. 

Here in DFW, we have lots of traffic, the hazards of a city with over 7 million people. Road rage is common in big cities. 

Picture yourself on the highway headed to the office. Suddenly, in your rearview mirrors, you see a pickup racing up behind you. The driver whips his truck around you and jumps in front of you irritating you. He races on down the road leaving you alone in your car to fume about his behavior. “What a jerk,” you say out loud (or something much more profane and foul). 😉 

“Who does he think he is.” All kinds of negative emotions sweep over you. If he came close to hitting you, you’re really steamed. 

By the time you arrive at your office, your blood pressure is elevated. Your emotions are high. It was half an hour ago when the pickup cut in front of you and you’re not over it yet. This will linger for as long as you’re willing to give it oxygen. All because it’s up to you. This is your choice. You’re thinking whatever you’re thinking because you choose to think these things. 

Meanwhile, the driver of the pickup has no idea who you are, or how you’re feeling. Your feelings are having no impact on him. You’re only hurting yourself. 

What if you were to think better of that driver? 

“Why would I?” you might say.

Because it’s better for you. Because it serves you more. 

What if that driver were en route to a family emergency? “He wasn’t,” is how most folks reply. “But what if he was. What if you chose to believe that he was?” I’ll say. How are you helped by extending grace to the driver of the pickup? You’re helped in every way. 

I know it’s hard, but it’s helpful. I know it’s not complicated, but it’s not easy to do. 

“How do I do that?” is a pretty common question I field. 

“You decide,” I say. “Just make up your mind that you’re going to choose to think the best because you have no evidence to support how you’re feeling – and even if you do have evidence to think ill of that driver, it won’t do YOU any good.” 

It’s been said that everything is hard. Good things. Bad things. Beautiful things. Ugly things. Things that build up. Things that tear down. Choose your hard. 

That’s right because that’s profitable. It helps us. It influences us and does for us what we otherwise might not be able to do for ourselves. It’s a life of leadership as we work to control our own destiny and write our hero story.

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

Looking to grow your small business?

Scroll to Top