For the last several years, I have been a guest lecturer at the “Engineering Innovation” class at the University of Florida, where my very close friend David Whitney is the Entrepreneur in Residence. I spend two hours talking about innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership, business, and career success with the class.
Invariably, several students approached me after the class and asked if I would serve as their mentor. I tell them I would be thrilled if they met one challenge: Read three books I assign you and send me a brief but focused overview of what you learned from the books. I have had hundreds of students accept the challenge, and only one actually finish it! His name is Alex, and I am now mentoring him. Here is the memo I recently sent him answering some very specific questions he had. I think my answers apply across a broad spectrum of business and career success. I hope you find these comments of value.
1. What actions do you recommend I take to make myself more valuable and successful in a start-up environment?
A: Several things make someone valuable in a start-up (or any business environment, really). Here are the first ones that come to mind: Be a great team player, work well with others, help everyone see the vision of what you’re trying to create together, share credit and take 100% accountability. Next, it is important to be intellectually rigorous, challenge ideas without challenging people, bring your best creativity and information to the table. Push people to be their best. Furthermore, you have to be dedicated to being a lifelong learner and always look for new information and ideas to help you be a more creative individual.
Also, I believe an extensive network of mentors, contacts, potential funders, and talented professionals would add tremendous value to any start-up group. Lastly, I think one of the major things missing in most start-ups is the realization that you’re building a business—not just a technology or product. So you have to have at least a few people on the team with strong business acumen: people who understand marketing, customer service, distribution, teamwork, management, and financials. I see many entrepreneurs who are enamored with their technology and love to work on it but don’t enjoy business at all and don’t focus on it, so they are soon out of business.
2. How can I build my network beyond my current work associates and personal friends?
A: When you meet someone especially impressive, get their card. Ask them to lunch, grab a beer, or have coffee. When you arrive at the meeting, be exceedingly well prepared with great questions. Let them know precisely what you’re trying to do. Then explain what you’re trying to get involved with, and ask for their help and advice (much like you are doing with me).
As a very busy person who often gets asked for help, advice, or to help someone get a job, I can tell you that, when I ask them, “Where do you want to work at, what are you exceptional at, where do your true talents lie?” they can rarely answer. How in the world am I supposed to help you if you can’t even tell me what you need help with, what you want to do, where you want to work.
Any answer “I can do anything” or “I’ll work anywhere” shows me that you’re simply looking for a job and to be able to pay your mortgage—not a career. There’s no way on the face of the earth I’m going to help you get into a company where the only thing you’re looking for is money and not how you can contribute to the organization. So know what you’re trying to achieve, where you’re trying to go, where specifically you need help. Make it clear to the person how they can help you.
It’s also important to note that you only need to meet a few key people, and then they can introduce you to everybody else. If you can get one person to introduce you to three more, then each of them will introduce you to three more, and so on. The key is always looking to learn, help, and add value in any way you can—not looking only for what you can take out of the relationship. If you approach the relationship in that manner, people will learn that you’re there to add value and help, not just there to try to move your agenda forward. This is why the idea of lifelong learning and always studying is so critical. If you do not have many life experiences to share with other people, then at least you can bring them good ideas that you’re finding.
Consequently, this is why I spend at least one hour a day searching the Internet for great blogs, articles, stories, and videos. I keep them in files and folders so that when I run into somebody who tells me they have a specific area they’re trying to learn more about, I can go back and hunt down one of my files and send it to them and say, “You mentioned at lunch that you were interested in physics. Here’s some new information I just found on the Higgs boson and entwined pairs that I thought you might find of value. Thanks again so much for having lunch with me, and I look forward to meeting the three folks you mentioned that would be good contacts for me.”
If you send articles and blog links you honestly think will be of value to all the key people you meet and stay in touch with from time to time. Then, you will find out you are building a vast reservoir of good intentions and good contacts. If you do this over your entire career, you realize that you have a massive network of bright, sharp, talented people standing by to assist you with great ideas, advice, and contacts when you need them. It gives you a great deal of confidence to know that you don’t have to have all the answers because you’ve got a vast network of people to help you find the answers. This is one of the master keys to career and life success.
3. Do you have any tips or methods that you use for prioritizing and managing your time? Work-life balance?
A: This one is quite simple. You do not manage time. You manage priorities. Once you get very clear about what’s important to you and what you truly value, it becomes straightforward how you use your time. A good friend of mine made it very clear to me when he said, “When values are clear, decisions are easy.” When you know what’s important to you, what you’re trying to accomplish in your life, what you truly value, then you simply must have the courage to say “No” to anything that does not match your vision of your ideal life.
It takes practice and time, but eventually, you will realize when you’re spending time on things that do not add value to you. And you can quickly walk away and make sure you don’t do that again in the future. For example, I do not find much value in regular TV, and I don’t enjoy watching sports. So, I watch very, very little TV—perhaps two hours a week. In comparison, the average American watches 30 to 40 hours a week!
If something is not helping my business, making me healthier, beneficial to my family, improving relationships in my life, and is not fun. I don’t do it. I have a fantastic amount of free time available to invest in myself and do what I value because of my discipline for not doing anything that does not align with my values and contributes to the quality of my life and my family.
Also, if you’re going to be any good at managing time, you must have a way to track your “to-do” list exceedingly well. It is best to use a computer-based system such as Outlook or Act. People who are great at time management are highly disciplined in logging all their information into one specific place to retrieve it later easily. They don’t have to worry about what they’re supposed to do because it is all on their calendar. Keep it all in one place, update it often, back it up, so you’re not afraid you’ll lose it. Then put it all out of your mind once you put it into the database and focus only on what’s at hand. Knowing that your calendar will tell you what you’re going to do next.
One of the most critical skills of a great leader and someone excellent at time management is the ability to focus on the thing at hand. Completely block out all other issues, problems, and projects until it is the appropriate time to focus on the next thing.
Also, this is something that leaders who are great at delegation do: They delegate away a project, and then it does not exist in their minds. It is off their plate, delegated to somebody they trust entirely, and now totally off their mind. In the process, they are freeing lots of time to focus on what only they can do as a leader.
4. What are some great examples you’ve seen for making a work environment fun and engaging?
A: Great question. I believe there are two answers to this. Some organizations plan for “fun” by setting up specific days and events to get everyone together to celebrate and build a positive culture. Other organizations let it happen organically because the people in the organization like each other and enjoy being around and having fun together. A large part of it depends on the organization’s culture. Whether people intrinsically want to spend time doing things together, having fun together—or whether it needs to be in the schedule.
In many of the small companies I have owned, I have said that we would pay for lunch for all our employees, their families, and their extended families—as long as we all went to lunch together. I had six or seven employees who would bring their partner, their kids, and parents to join us for lunch. Sometimes we had twelve or fifteen people at lunch—three generations—and it only cost me about $6,000 a year to do that for my team.
I have been in other companies where we would barbecue one day a week for lunch. I would grab some steaks or burgers and grill up some lunch, and then we would all sit together and chat. Some organizations plan employee picnics, bowling nights, birthday party celebrations, and team-building off-sites at the other end of the spectrum. The goal is to do what feels right, natural, and not force the fun. Lastly, a big thing that creates a fun and engaging environment to employees is helping them see how important and meaningful their work is. What kind of impact they are having, and thanking them often for doing a great job. The best cultures are where the managers/leaders spend much time “catching people doing things right.”
Some of the latest research I’ve seen, which I agree with strongly, states that there are five key things that you need to build a high-engagement culture:
- The ability to set very clear, specific, measurable, and binary goals.
- High levels of trust throughout the organization.
- Lots of open, honest, robust, and transparent communication.
- High levels of both personal and mutual accountability.
- And lots of positive recognition for a job well done.
Today, it is critical that you help employees understand exactly how the work they do fits into a larger picture of the organization, is meaningful, and makes a difference. I also think it’s essential if you want to have a great culture to invest back in your employees. So that you’re not just taking from them. You are trying to make every day they come to work a day that improves their lives overall.
Lastly, you need to show respect for your employees. You should admire their talent and contributions. Get rid of any stupid rules and make it easy for them to be successful. If you can do these sorts of things across the culture of the entire organization, there is a good chance you will build a culture of highly engaged, satisfied, and loyal employees. Which, by the way, is the number one factor that drives highly engaged, satisfied, and loyal customers. And the last time I checked, highly engaged, satisfied, and loyal customers are great for business!
I hope you found this information helpful, Alex. Send back any specific questions you have, or let’s schedule a call soon to discuss in depth. I hope you are doing great—take good care.
If you want to get in contact with me, I’d love to hear from you. Please visit my site at https://johnspence.com/contact/ and let me know how I can help.