Whether they’re looking for it or not, there are plenty of people willing to bend entrepreneurs’ ears with suggestions and ideas about how to run their businesses. But not all advice is created equal. “Everybody has an opinion, and who’s to say they’re right?” asks Bruce Hunter.
Hunter does a fair bit of advising himself—as president of Lighthouse 360, he’s helped scores of companies create better business plans and put in place the structures necessary to achieve their goals. “In the very early stages of an organization’s growth, [you’re] trying to figure out which way to go,” he notes. Plenty of perfectly well-meaning people—family, friends, former colleagues—will add their thoughts to the mix as you’re trying to build a business plan. “[People will] give you 16 different directions, [but] you can’t chase them all—it’ll just confuse you,” he cautions. “You need to pick who you are going to listen to.”
In those early stages, it’s important to focus on achieving the plan you’ve developed for your business. “Certainly you need to pivot and you need to change if the market feedback suggests it, but it has to be steady-as-she-goes initially.”
Still, that’s not to say you should reject all external input. Advisory boards are a proven and popular way to harness the expertise of others, and Hunter says it’s crucial to fill the seats around the table with the right people. “A lot of people will choose their advisors because they have industry experience,” he observes. “The most important thing that I would look for is somebody with a breadth of leadership and management experience.” While the technical skills of a sector specialist can prove useful, entrepreneurs are often experts in their fields already, he says. Better to seek the help of someone who can provide strategic direction and insight for the business as a whole.
There’s also insight to be found within your own business. Hunter recounts a recent conversation with the CEO of a mid-sized company, who invoked the location, location, location’ maxim of the real estate industry when identifying the most important factor in any business. “I think it’s all about people, people, people,” Hunter says this executive told him. “You get the right people in the right place at the right time and you’re going to be wildly successful.” Having built a team of top people, you need to trust them. “As the organization grows, the leadership needs to [do] less of, I do it,’ [and] more of, You do it,'” Hunter says.
But as you hand over more operational duties to others to focus on long-term vision and strategy, don’t lose sight of the front lines of the business. “What tends to happen at the end of an organization’s life is people are more focused on the internal workings and the politics than they are the market and the customers,” Hunter notes. Find someone who will be the “voice of the customer” within the organization, and listen to that person. “I think that value can’t be underscored strongly enough.”
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