Aligning for Adventure: Some Year-End Reflections

The sprint to the New Year is upon us, and despite all our post-Christmas fatigue, wisdom would suggest that we set aside a few quiet moments the next few days to relax—and to reflect on the year gone by.

2017 brought many changes to our lives. Some were positive; some were not. Maybe you were able to turn a long-time dream into a reality. Maybe you struggled personally and saw the end of a relationship. We all have our individual journeys, but, if we observe closely, we can find truths in every story, and we can extract lessons from each tale. With that in mind, this narrative below might resonate with your ongoing quest to be the best business owner in the world….

As Mr. James Williams, Owner of J.J.W. Lumber, parked his Stingray in the driveway and silenced the engine, his entire body ejected a booming sigh. He clutched the steering wheel and let out a groan as he thought about the latest incident at work. “I have to do something,” James told himself as he swiveled out of his jewel and headed toward the house.” “I just don’t know what.”

Like so many of us, Jimmy built his company through sweat equity, wise decisions, and support from friends and family. It took a few years to really get going, but in year four, he truly started to reap the fruits of his labor. Sales were booming and he realized that if he did it correctly, J.J.W. could give him what he truly wanted from life: more freedom and free time to spend with his family. If he could find someone to run the business and move it in a new direction, he could step away and just oversee the overseer.

He discussed his idea with his three best buddies—John, Joe, and Mike—who had worked with him from the beginning. Jimmy had hoped one of them could step into the role, but, after a lengthy discussion, they all agreed that none of them had the expertise needed to take J.J.W. to that metaphorical “next level.”

After about 50 interviews, Jimmy settled on a candidate, Noah Smith, to run J.J.W. “Settled” is the perfect word to describe his hiring process. During each interview, Jimmy asked some questions he pulled from the internet (and a few others that he and his wife, Karen, had developed). Noah had the best answers, and he got the job.

A few months into Noah’s tenure, however, Jimmy started to notice some curious changes within J.J.W. A few company mainstays were no longer around. Other employees were working later into the evening. Customer issues were handled with a sense of nonchalance. Fewer and fewer workers were smiling throughout the day, and, in the break room, instead of talking to one another, they were glued to their phones, trying to escape into their own happy places. One afternoon, he even overheard Noah yelling at a receptionist.

Jimmy asked a few questions here and there, but Noah always seemed to divert the conversation back to the bottom line, and profits were up. “Everything’s great, here! Look at the numbers! Be happy!” was the melody, and Jimmy decided to harmonize with that song. After all, numbers don’t lie….

But then, today happened. Somehow, there was a miscommunication with a major order, and J.J.W. didn’t deliver the expected lumber to a worksite. Instead of taking the blame and trying to fix the situation immediately, Noah spent about 20 minutes arguing with the client. Jimmy learned about this on the way home from the golf course….

This imaginary tale isn’t new or novel. Its lessons aren’t unique. In fact, the scenario reveals a common woe that many owners encounter as they confront the “Paradox of Progress”: misalignment.

Every owner (and employee) has values, and those values are manifest through actions. In many cases, however, people aren’t in tune with their principles, and this creates misalignment within relationships. When this happens, stress grows, discord festers, the culture suffers, and productivity and revenue eventually decline.

When we revisit the story, we can see that Jimmy is a good-intentioned owner. He values time with his family and he cares about maintaining healthy relationships with customers and employees (even with Noah!). Noah, upon closer examination, also appears to have good intentions. Think about it. If we were to ask him why he’s behaving in a certain way, he’d probably argue that he’s operating with Jimmy’s best interests in mind. After all, doesn’t Jimmy want more money so he can have more freedom with his family? Doesn’t Jimmy want to be free from the day-to-day operations? Isn’t Noah making that happen? Why aren’t they aligned? The problem is more complex than it first appears—and the solution rests with Jimmy.

Imagine how this might have played out differently if Jimmy had known what was truly important to him at an earlier point in time. Imagine if Jimmy would have been able to articulate his vision for the J.J.W. workplace before he began the interview process. He could’ve created better questions that incorporated his values and ensured that whoever he hired would operate in accordance with those principles. If the owner’s vision is clear, then everybody can align with that mission.

It should come as no surprise that the very best leaders—in the business realm and life at-large—are clear about their goal and vigilant about moving toward that direction. We all know these people. They know exactly what they want and can transfer that vision to the collective whole. Maybe it’s your aunt who always throws the best cookouts and family parties because she puts everyone in the best position to contribute. Maybe it’s your old high-school track coach who always knew how to push the right buttons to get the most out of the team. Maybe it’s your former boss who helped nurture your dreams and gave you enough confidence to set out on your own….

Remember: As an owner, it’s all about you. If you want to use your business as a vehicle to drive you to your life’s destination, you need to be clear about your focus. If you’re clear, you will set a solid framework with which everyone can align. And once that happens, you will find even more seasons to celebrate.