I have been in the front getting kicked in the rear for most of my adult life. After a year and a half away from home working in New York City and Texas, I decided that I needed to work for myself. I moved home from Houston in the spring of 1978 and then helped my Dad start a new business in the fall of that year. It was not a good time to be starting over. His previous business was dying and we had to buy $75,000 worth of new equipment at 18% interest just to keep it alive. He guaranteed the note and made me president of the corporation. No man was ever less prepared than I. Luckily, my Dad had lots of experience and for the next 10 years he coached me on all aspects of small business management.
I remember his very first lesson quite clearly. He said, “If you want to be president then you get paid last and if there’s not enough money to go around you may not get paid at all.” That’s what he called an incentive plan. I called it a threat. Either way it worked. I was very motivated to make sure we were always profitable and that cash flow was good. There were only a few times in 25 years that I couldn’t pay myself. I wonder if this approach would work on Wall Street. Can you imagine telling those execs they only get paid when the company is profitable? What a concept.
The real challenge before me was to figure out how to use all this new technology. I had talked him into buying one of the largest process cameras on the planet and assured him that I knew all about it. That was just a slight exaggeration. I never told him how much time and material I wasted trying to figure this thing out but eventually I came up with some very unique processes that were pretty revolutionary at the time. By the mid 80’s we had developed a regional reputation for superior photography and sales increased every year.
Mastering technology is just half the battle of owning your own company. Managing people is much more difficult to master and you never really stop learning something new. One of the many things my Dad taught me about this subject was this simple statement, “You can’t expect any employee to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself and that includes taking out the trash and mopping the floor.” Even into his 70’s he was always the first one to volunteer for the dirty work. Just watching him work so hard made every other employee take notice and the good ones were not about to be outworked by the old man. His attitude was very basic, “Here’s what needs to be done, so let’s do it as best we can so that we all make money.”
The other great object lesson he shared with us was his sense of humor. He made work fun. He whistled tunes all day, he smiled when he talked, he was always willing to share his knowledge with anyone who asked and he told jokes whenever we needed a break from the pressure of deadlines. His leadership skills were God-given and some of them rubbed off on me, luckily.
Of all the character traits I looked for in potential employees, none was more important than a great sense of humor. You can always teach people the technical stuff but a positive, fun loving attitude is something you’re born with. I knew full well how stressful the graphic arts business can be and I sure didn’t want cry babies around to get in my way. The best group of people I ever had were the ones who had the best sense of humor and could handle a fair amount of pressure. My job as the boss was just to give them all the tools to work with, explain what had to be done and then get out of their way while they did it. And I always made it a point to say please and thank you.
Being a manager and being a leader are two different things. Many people are effective managers but very few are effective leaders. Leadership is a lot more subtle and much harder to define but you’ll know it when you see it. Great leaders have an innate ability to empathize and relate to everybody and, when needed, communicate bad news just as effectively as good news. The trick is to be honest at all times. I guess that’s why we have so many infuriating scandals these days, corporate America has forgotten how to be honest. You can only lie your way out of things for so long before it all catches up with you, shall I name just a few: Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, AIG and now even the Catholic Church.
Some may question that last one but make no mistake about it, the Catholic Church is first and foremost a profitable business. I have to wonder if all the child abuse problems coming to light now in the church could have been avoided many decades ago if just one real leader in the church had admitted there was a problem, gotten rid of the bad apple priests and asked for forgiveness from the flock. It sure couldn’t have turned out any worse than what they have now. Lack of true leadership has cost them millions of dollars and ruined their reputation for doing what’s right.
That’s the single most important thing my Dad ever taught me about what it means to be a leader, when you screw up admit it, take your lumps and do whatever you have to do to prevent it from happening again. When you do that people will almost always continue to trust you and work with you. I think the best leaders are the ones who follow Mark Twain’s advice, “When in doubt, tell the truth.”
©Guy R. Horst and grhgraph.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy R. Horst and grhgraph.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.