Is late advice no longer advice?

Having your own business where your business is offering advice can be frustrating, especially amongst friends, suggests Tim Browne, business coach and key note speaker at the 2018 Small Firms division annual conference.

It’s amazing how many people find ways of picking your brains for ‘free advice’. Several years ago, at a barbecue, I was chatting to a group of people when one of the guests cornered me. She told me she had just started her own firm and started asking me questions, the type that start in that innocuous way until they realise the game is up and come out and ask the one they wanted to all along. Hers was simple: ‘Tim, how do you juggle running a business and being the business?’

Most people who start businesses are technicians, those that do the role themselves.

At that time, I’d been successfully running my business for 10 years and explained how I’d coped. I wasn’t sure I knew the ‘answer’. Then, as often when you need solutions, one arrived. I was in an airport heading for a conference I was presenting at and on the business book section I saw the answer we were clearly both looking for: The E Myth – why most small business doesn’t work and what do about it by Michael E. Gerber.

I’m paraphrasing here but in essence the book refers to the myth that most businesses are started by entrepreneurs, risking capital for profit. In reality, most people who start businesses are technicians, those that do the role themselves. The problem is that just because you understand the technical work of a business, doesn’t necessarily mean you understand the business that does the technical work.

While, like most theoretical books, there is nothing revolutionary about this theory, it does successfully use labels and models to help convey how we succeed and where we fail. When I work with businesses now and I’m training, coaching or speaking, I see the issues this woman had (and those that I relate to myself). We need to be the technician – for most of us it’s the fee-earning part. But if we focus exclusively on that role, either we struggle to manage the business or our quality, or consistency levels drop. For this reason, we need to play three different roles at work:

  • the technician, the one we are good at and why we are there in the first place
  • the manager, to create order, consistency and the systems the business needs to run with
  • the entrepreneur, the visionary, who plans and takes risks for the future.

When I suggest this to business owners they explain they don’t have time to be the manager or the entrepreneur. Obviously, my advice is they can’t afford not to have the time. By being all three (at different times) you are allowing the business to have a structure, so it can grow. The book refers to the aim of franchising the business, not necessarily literally but in the sense that even when you decide to hire someone you are empowering them to be your business; if you don’t have the appropriate systems and identity in place they will not know what to do.

With the weather being so great this summer, I ended up seeing the woman at a friend’s barbecue. This time I approached her, I felt I had something to add. I asked how she was and how business was going. She looked deflated. She explained how she struggled to manage the demand and it all got too much for her, so she hired someone, she ended up not trusting them to do things like she would. She said she’d given it a go but felt she was letting people down, so went back to the city firm she was in before. I really felt for her, I explained my readings and revelations and we chatted about how she could identify with it. Ironically, we laughed at the end, with a new set of ‘labels’ she realised she was being managed by a ‘technician’ at work and that even the big firms don’t get it right!

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