Monday, April 28, 2008

Balancing Act

Mastering a level of balance in a business owner's life is always a juggling act. When you own your own company, you often feel as though you never shut off, and most often you never really do. Not only are you responsible for the day-to-day function of your business, but usually you are the one to replace the toner in the copier, the lightbulbs and do the cleaning as well.

Often we are up early in the morning or staying out after hours for networking events and breakfast meetings with people that we hope will ultimately help our business. Weekends are usually reserved for playing email "catch-up" or working on proposals or paying bills. And even when you're out having dinner with friends, most often you're giving an update on your business, or answering a question about what it's like to run your own business. And of course you never know who you might meet when you're out and about - the person sitting at the table next to you could turn out to be your next client!

But I find having activities and interests outside of work are essential to my sanity and necessary for perspective. I work hard at maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Yes, I have had to make up rules about my blackberry usage - such as not responding to work-related emails after 10pm on weeknights. I only respond to work-related phone calls or emails on weekends that I initiated (unless it's an emergency); and I really only initiate work-related calls and emails on weekends it's truly necessary. But that still doesn't keep me from going to the office on a Saturday or Sunday or from writing up a new marketing plan over the weekend or from just thinking about where my business is going and how it's going to get there. That is a constant.

I recently bought a house in the country. I have spent the last three weeks doing yardwork, taking up old carpet, and hunting for antiques to furnish the place. I have also spent many hours both in and out of the office working during this time. (Hence the gap in my blog entries!) I've met with several prospective new clients, submitted a few proposals and put things in motion for a few new projects. I've counseled staff and provided insights to clients. As well, I have spent a few hours just watching nature and feeding birds. I think that this house is going to be my saving grace amid the hectic-ness of both city living and running a small business. I have learned more about human nature in the past few weeks from meeting all the new people you meet when you buy a home for the first time; and from watching animals interact. I feel as though I've already become more productive by having a vacation home, and hence, a huge escape from everyday life. I can only hope that the pattern sticks and that I can finally have the peace of mind and balance that I so crave.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Listen and Learn

Sometimes the best thing you can do as a business owner is to stop talking and listen. This includes listening to your clients, your staff, and, quite often, yourself.

I have found that being willing to listen to a client talk about an issue or problem goes a long way in terms of the client feeling you are a valuable member of their team. If you are able to convey that you are only interested in seeing them put their best foot forward, it is appreciated and shows your commitment to serving their interests.

As well, be sure to take time to ask your staff about their day. I make it a point to check in with my staff in terms of their workload and work experience about once a month. These are not formal sit down evaluation-style meetings, which I hold annually; these are more informal, conversational style exchanges where I don’t give feedback unless it is asked of me. I simply listen. By doing this I am able to hear when things are going as well as I perceive them, or if there are problems that I might not be aware of – problems with other members of the team, clients, or even with my management.

Sometimes, a staff member simply needs to vent their frustration about a situation, and by listening vs. giving an opinion, they will often come to their own conclusion as to how best handle things. Almost always it’s exactly how you would have advised them, but by taking the time to hear them out and draw their own conclusions instead of offering your advice right away (which might also result in a shorter conversation), can help an employee grow and learn valuable decision making skills.

A couple of years ago, my business underwent a growth period and I hired my first senior level staff member. I hardly had time to train the person and was lucky enough that they were self-motivated and able to figure things out on their own fairly quickly. I was so busy running in and out of the office, shouting orders and tasks to the rest of the staff as I ran out the door to a meeting with a client or potential client, that I completely neglected to check in with my team to see how they were doing in the midst of all the change. Turns out, they were not really doing that well, and needed me to take the time to talk to them, ask them about how things were going, and just in general, just listen. I almost lost a valuable member of my team before I realized what was happening. This is when I really learned that I had to take the time to listen.

If you have something to share about how listening has helped you in your business, please post it here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Starting a Business - Confidence or Ignorance?

When I started my business I didn't realize I was starting a business. I was simply doing what I liked to do - raising money for women candidates and causes - and had nary a thought as to what it might take to actually run a successful business.

In fact, it wasn't until I was three years into it that I internalized that I actually owned a business. And this was only due to my business partner wanting out of the business and being in a situation where I had to decide if I wanted to buy her out and continue or end my stint as an independent political fundraising consultant.

In order for me to determine that I wanted to continue with the business, I had to admit that I actually had a business.

You see, I never considered myself an entrepreneur of any sort. To me, entrepreneurs were people who went to business school, had investors and business plans, and invented things that didn't exist that you just couldn't live without - like cup holders in cars and movie theaters.

I wasn't innovative, financially savvy or had "business smarts" - or at least I didn't think so at the time. Now, here I am, 9 years and change into my business and I finally feel like the entrepreneur I always have been.

When I think back on the past decade, I can't help but ponder how I began my business and how I kept it going day after day. I think about what motivated me both then and now, and how much I have learned over the years; as well as how many mistakes I've made along the way and how much of what I do on a daily basis is going by my gut instincts. I don't know where I got these instincts, but I do think it's a combination of confidence that I'm doing the right thing, mixed with a bit of ignorance about not knowing or maybe not caring about the unknown.

Many woman business owners I speak with have a similar story. They began their businesses by doing what they loved as opposed to following a concrete business plan. And through trial and error, became successful at what they do.

I think that much of running a business is having the confidence to make decisions, the knowledge that you are an expert in your field, the understanding that people are human and make mistakes, the fortitude to continue moving forward, and the acceptance that anything is possible.