– Thoughts on Strategy and Management

The four best pieces of business advice I ever got

In the course of our working life, we sometimes come across some words of wisdom and advice that simply stick. They give us guidance and help us to overcome obstacles. In this post, I share the four most valuable pieces of advice that helped me in my professional development.

1 Is this really the right decision?

In my first job after university I worked with SMEs in startup or turnaround situations. Among other things, I had to write expert opinions on their chances of a successful turnaround. The purpose was to decide whether or not to grant them public subsidies. This involved intense work with the business owners and managers. For a young graduate like me it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between rational business logic and emotional involvement.

My boss was an experienced certified accountant. He had to review my expert opinions and to make sure I come to the right conclusion. Once I had an especially difficult project. The business was almost bankrupt; the owners ran out of cash and of ideas how to turn it around. I knew the owners had given personal guarantees for already existing bank loans. The failure of the business would ruin the owners too. In that situation, I was inclined to give a favorable opinion.

My boss looked at the business case and asked me

“If it was your money, would you invest it in that business?”

“But I don’t have that much money.”
“If you had, would you invest it in that business?”
“Uhm, actually, no.”

This one question has been helping me with difficult business decisions for the rest of my working life.

Whenever you are not sure if a decision is a good one or not, ask yourself: Would I do it if it was my own money that’s at stake.

[bctt tweet=”If it was your money, would you still do it?”]

2 Copy with pride

When I was a business school, a professor once held a lecture about benchmarking. He said:

“Benchmarking means nothing else than: Copy with pride!”

Copy with pride – these three words comprise several pieces of good advice:

  • Look out what works for others and don’t be above making it work for you.
  • You don’t have to re-invent the wheel if somebody else has already done it.
  • It’s no shame to use an idea, even if you weren’t the first one to come up with it.
  • Be open-minded for great ideas from outside your organization.
  • Don’t succumb to the Not-invented-here syndrome

Of course, Copy with pride does not mean “Copy and paste”. It always means “Copy and adapt”. I only recently met this idea again in Ramon Vullings’ and Marc Helevens book Not Invented Here: Cross-industry Innovation. Thus, a business school teacher introduced me to the concept of cross-industry innovation as early as in the year 2000.

[bctt tweet=”Benchmarking means nothing else than: Copy with pride!”]

3 Don’t come up with problems

In my second job, I was responsible for a large and important project. I still lacked some experience. Hence, the project was really challenging to me. I would have needed some guidance and support from a helpful mentor.

Unfortunately, my boss there was everything but supportive. He was the type of guy who wanted to be involved in every minor decision and would not let us work independently. Hence, I often showed up in his office with lots of problems and questions.

My boss soon realized that in that project you could not gain much honor, but lose a lot of reputation. One day, he sighted and said to me

“You only come to me with problems. Why don’t you come to me with solutions?”

Ups, obviously I had unlearned to work in a solution-oriented manner. (My bosses fault!) It is common sense in a different work environment. However, it was a revelation for me in the context of that boss:

From that day on, I just worked on my project. I did what I considered to be right without asking anybody. I informed my boss only occasionally about my actions. Things went on much better now!

My boss was happy to get rid of this annoying project and I was happy to get rid of his close supervision.

This is my lesson:
People don’t want to hear about problems. They want to hear about solutions.

[bctt tweet=”You only come to me with problems. Why don’t you come to me with solutions?”]

4 Just look out what needs to be done and do it

Several years later, I had gained much more experience and confidence. I once changed my job within the company, just moving to a different task in a different department. My boss there was the complete opposite of the above one.

After a few days in my new position I entered his office and said something like “I have had a look around now and understand what we are doing in this team. I you want to make use of me, you should now give me a specific task.”

His reply came to me as a surprise:

“Just look around in your team. If you notice anything that we could do better or that we don’t do now but should be doing – Make it your project*!”

*”Make it your project” actually was reference to a popular TV commercial for a DIY chain with exactly that slogan at that time.

What followed were the best years of all my working life. I was given specific tasks only a few times. Most of the time, I worked on projects and problems I had chosen myself. I was happy with what I did and everybody in the company was happy with what I did too.

This may be a matter of course for innovation-driven tech-companies like in Silicon Valley. However, to my experience, this attitude is not a matter of course for many other businesses. We still live in a world where employees are given tasks. They fulfill these tasks. In many cases, they don’t do anything beyond that – and are not expected to do so. Hence, this last advice actually was a twofold one:

  • For me: Don’t wait for somebody to give you a task (that you may not like). Instead, actively find your own tasks that are fun to you and deliver value to your company.
  • For leaders: Encourage your team to identify and select their own tasks. If they are not used to it, they may need a kick. But it may work magic on their motivation and their results.

[bctt tweet=”Make it your project: Just look out what needs to be done and do it!”]

These are my personal lessons from business life. All of them continue to help me to take the right decisions, make sound judgements, focus on the relevant tasks, and to think more openly.

What are your most valuable lessons and pieces of advice? Share them in the comments below.

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