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The Business Leader as Ultramarathoner

Have you ever heard of an ultramarathon? A standard marathon is just over 26 miles. An ultramarathon is usually on the order of 50 or 100 miles, though there are some that span one thousand! Imagine the endurance required to run such a race.

Running a business requires the kind of devotion and stamina that ultramarathoners can only dream about. Like the 100-mile runner, the successful business leader must maintain focus, keeping an eye on the path...on the mileposts that mark progress...and on the long-range goal.

Unlike an ultramarathoner, your long-distance business run ends only when you leave the business by choice or when it dies an unnatural death. For in business the real success lies in creating something you can live with for the long haul, a crucible into which you can mix your creative vision and talents to build something unique and useful.

Keeping Stakeholders Focused

It's critical to your success to help your stakeholders stay focused, too. A good business delivers value to employees, customers, investors, and the community in roughly equal measure. Lose focus in any of those areas and you can find yourself headed for a business train wreck.

What happens when a business and its stakeholders lose focus? I recently observed a group of people at one company meeting to discuss the project manager's dissatisfaction with pink bubble wrap.

Eight people spent one hour in a meeting to talk about why bubble wrap had to be pink. Was that meeting necessary? Of course not. The focusing question to ask is: Does this meeting deliver real value to business stakeholders? Is it lined up with the business' principles and what it does consistently well?

Best intentions aside, such meetings are indicative of deeper problems that have gone ignored for a long time.

How Many Bubble Wrap Meetings Can You Afford?

In larger companies the symptoms of a loss of focus can go on for years. The systemic problems that occur in such situations develop gradually. Unless you are paying attention, you hardly notice them until they reach an almost ridiculous peak.

In smaller businesses, though, the results of defocusing can be catastrophic. They come upon you quickly like potholes in the road because you are moving at high speed. Before you know it you're sitting at the roadside, wondering what happened.

If you are going to avoid such problems, you must take action ahead of time. You must begin before the beginning.

Paying Attention Before the Beginning

During a business' startup phase, well before launch, founders and leaders must take the time to get conscious about what they are doing and why they are doing it. Smart leaders create answers to questions like:

  • What is our business about?
  • Who are we as a business?
  • What do we believe about the right way to conduct business?
  • What sort of relationships do we want to have with our customers, employees, investors, and the community?
  • What is our company's unique value to its stakeholders?
  • What is the unique value that our product or service brings to solving customer problems?

The time you make to answer such questions is repaid a thousandfold as your business grows. Be fanatical about indoctrinating your staff, employees, investors, customers, and the community about your principles and what you do consistently well. Do so in terms they can relate to: Employees: Focus on delivering the value of what you do consistently well to those you serve. Make sure they KNOW who you serve and teach them how to be customer advocates. Reward such advocacy. Make sure they understand the value your business delivers to each stakeholder.

Customers: Create a communication strategy that connects intimately with those you serve. SHOW the value of your focus -- don't tell, because talk is cheap. Build relationships that feed improvements to existing products and services, and get your customers involved in creating new ones.

Investors: Keep them informed about your progress. Speak the truth clearly. Hide nothing. Act ethically. Plan for the long term (even if you personally want to take an early exit).

Community: Be involved as a good community member. Pick a cause that's congruent with what you do and support it with passion. Show the community you'll be there for the long term.

Your Courage and Devotion Set the Tone

Above all, have the courage and devotion to keep yourself focused. There is no stronger example than that of your own life. Do your best to be the sort of person you want others in your company to be. For they will look to you as the model for acceptable behavior, values, and creative passion.

It's your race. Run it well!

Michael Knowles, co-author of The Entrepreneur's Concept Assessment Toolbook (http://www.booklocker.com/books/1988.html) helps businesses take what they do best and focus it on success. A Principal in One Straight Line LLC, Michael has over 25 years of experience helping companies create communication strategies help them engage customers, employees, investors, outsourcing partners, and the community. Michael can be reached at mknowles@onestraightline.com.

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