The ‘F words’ of business

Fair, fear and failure

I was inspired to write this article by watching “A Christmas Story” (for the 50th time at least!). When poor Ralphie accidentally uttered the “F” word, he brought down the wrath of Mr. and Mrs. Parker, ultimately getting a bar of soap in his mouth for his indiscretion.

But it got me to thinking, “What are my ‘F’ words in business?” I can think of three.

The first is ‘fair’

Without a doubt, it’s the worst of the “F” words. I would recommend washing out any leader’s mouth with a bar of soap when they use this word.

Why is it so bad? For one, nothing in life, business or the real world is fair. We should debunk that notion right away. We’ve always used soap with our children – why not with grown-ups?

“Fair” is also one of the most abused words in our business vocabulary. As in, “I want to be fair to everybody in the company.”

Or, “Joe hit it out of the park this year, and Sue’s been a disappointment. But it wouldn’t be fair if I gave Joe a 5 percent increase and didn’t give Sue the same raise since she’s been here much longer than Joe.”

Or, “Even though Jim isn’t cutting it, it wouldn’t be fair for me to terminate him now, since I relocated him here from North Dakota.” (Hell, you did him a favor by getting him out of North Dakota!)

By always being fair, business leaders somehow think they will create a protective “bubble” around themselves which will shield them from explaining or defending a business or personnel decision. The effect is often just the opposite, since there’s always someone who will still think a decision is unfair.

From where does the fair “F” word come? It comes from the second “F” word.

The second is ‘fear’

I believe this “F” word drives the use of the first “F” word. It’s amazing how many leaders default to fair and fear. What are we afraid of? We’re afraid somebody might quit. That somebody might not like us. That a customer might leave. Fear creates a lot of cascading problems.

I’m working with a company that has a turnover rate of more than half of new hires. While there are many reasons, low starting wages are the root cause in this case. I asked the owner why she doesn’t raise prices to meet the increasing competition for talent.

Her response? “I am afraid if I try to raise my prices, my customers might leave.”

My response? “So you’re afraid to have a crucial conversation with your customers, but you’re not afraid your high turnover rate is damaging your company?”

“Of course I am afraid!” she said. “Why do you think I can’t sleep?”

I asked her, “What would you do if you were not afraid?”

Which brings us to…

The third is ‘failure’

soap-bar-shutterstock_334591208A wise guy once said to me, “Everybody tells us to celebrate failure, but nobody ever wants to come to the party.” Yet talk to anybody about the most important, impactful, life-changing experience in his or her life, and the majority of the time, it emanates from a past failure.

Wauwatosa native John Morgridge grew Cisco Systems from a four-year-old, 30-person organization, to a $49 billion global company with more than 72,000 employees. He has spoken often about the business failures that led to his success. Very few of us are willing to be so open.

My own business failures, which likely cost me millions of dollars, have provided the best (and most expensive) education possible.

So, to be fair, we need to embrace our fear and our failure in order to grow as leaders. Because like Ralphie, even though we might think we are safe inside that protective “bubble of fairness,” we may find instead that bubble only leaves a bad taste in our mouths, just like poor Ralphie’s mouthful of soap.

-As a serial entrepreneur and business and community leader since 1983, John Howman has led a variety of businesses, from technology to consumer products companies. He leads two groups for TEC, a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at JHowman@AlliedCG.com.

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As a serial entrepreneur, business and community leader since 1983, John Howman has led a variety of businesses, from technology to consumer products companies. He leads two groups for Vistage, a professional development group of CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at JHowman@AlliedCG.com.

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