“The walls of pride are high and wide. Can’t see over to the other side.” — Bob Dylan
In the middle of 1996, I sat down in “the big chair” after being promoted to President of a middle-size freight and logistics company. More than 140 in staff, 6 offices and 150 million in revenue flowing in and out of the organization. While that may sound exciting, the real picture was not a rosy one. We were losing money. Clients had gone bankrupt on us, (as they fought through our last recession) leaving us holding the bag. An industry, flailing in response to the same recession, was giving away services for less than half of our normal fees and clients demanded we match competitive quotes. Our bank was breathing down our back.
I remember it so vividly. Looking out across my desk was like looking at a landscape littered with business wreckage. So many things urgently needed my attention that is was hard to know where to begin. But more than anything, I felt alone in the battle. Like any competitive industry, if the staff thinks the ship may be sinking they look to jump to another ship. My core team was more than loyal but human nature is what it is and they had families to feed. So it was up to me to deliver on the challenge, alone.
My friends, old and new, looked to me as a young but smart business person. “I am sure you will figure it out” they would say. So how could I tell them about my deep fear and worry? What would they think of me if they knew the truth?
So many things need to get done. So many things…
I picked up the phone and called a business owner I respected and asked for a referral to someone who could provide candid coaching, support and counsel. Specifically, I said, “I do not want a management consultant that will tell me to buy low and sell high or write some giant report. I want someone who will tell it to me straight and call me out when I am bullshitting myself.”
My first call with his recommendation lasted well over an hour. When we were done I asked the two questions that were left to ask — “Can I afford you and can I afford not to afford you.”
I made one of the hardest and smartest business decisions in my professional life and spent the money, we didn’t really have, because getting the company back into the black would be worth 100X what I would pay him. My business, and those that depended on it, were worth that risk.
He supported me as advertised. I now had someone who had been through deep business struggles many times before. I could tell him the naked truth and he wasn’t going anywhere. He called me out on my bullshit with candor, empathy and integrity.
Within 6 months we were back on track. We adjusted our focus and made some smart moves into higher-margin businesses. We executed a plan that had a manageable number of objectives. Within 12 months we were back to profitability.
But here is what is more important, I should have called him 2 years earlier.
Why didn’t I?
I knew the business was stumbling and tried everything I could think of to fix it. But I never asked for help. Sure, I talked to marketing, design, PR and communication agencies looking for some “secret sauce” and paid handsomely for them to build up the facade of a business that deep down I knew was cracking at the foundation.
What I could not see was what so many others also never see until it is too late — It was the business end of the business that needed attention. And very few like to get involved on that side. It’s not sexy, the underlying issues are not clear and the outcome is far from certain. There is no “magic bullet” other than grinding work, tough choices and demons to face. But leave it alone in this battle and you will continue to feel alone. The end of the story ends badly. And it will end.
Over 19 years have passed since I picked up the phone and asked for help. Since the business turned around, we were able to sell it in early 2000. A few years later I hung out my own shingle to help business owners never have to go through what I went through. To help those that are brave enough to ask for help before it is too late. To realize what I have after all of these years, most businesses need not fail. I wrote a book and an eBook about what I learned before, during and after those tough times.
Having now helped dozens of business owners, entrepreneurs and CEO’s through their own dark times there is one common threat they defeated before I could help them. It is the same demon that caused me to lose 2 years, and my smile, before asking for help. Pride.
“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”
— Thomas Merton
Please tell me a single thing that your pride will fix or make better? Just ONE. Tell me how pride will help you when there are a dozen critical decisions that need attention and you are only one person trying to figure it all out? Tell me how pride does anything but become what will torment you for many more years after the business is gone (And I speak from experience here, it will). Pride is as much a business person’s enemy as fear. I’d say more.
Somewhere pride has become an important piece of armor in business. It does not work.
My clients, the ones that asked for help, are some of the smartest and bravest business people I have ever met. They replaced the false shield of pride with one of courage. They dropped their armor. Their businesses are all thriving because they chose their business over their pride.
In the toughest of times, my pride betrayed me by masking my real fears and kept me alone with my pain and stress.
Well, fuck my pride. Fuck yours too.