The business section of your average metro daily newspaper isn’t the home of hard-hitting investigative journalism. For the most part, it’s a place for cheerleading. So I shouldn’t be too hard on the guy who wrote the column.
It was a fairly typical fluff piece about two entrepreneurs who had built their dream into a thriving business. They were making maybe a hundred million in revenue, with a bunch of locations in several states. They started out focused on growth, then woke up one day and recognized the importance of being more disciplined in how they operate. And so on.
They sounded like very strong, perceptive businessmen. So I can forgive the writer for failing to ask the obvious question: “You two did all this yourselves?”
Like “When did you stop beating your spouse?” there’s no right answer. Unlike it, it’s a fair question.
Had the journalist asked and the two heroes answered no, a reasonable person might wonder why they were taking all the credit anyway. But if they’d responded in the affirmative, they’d be lousy businessmen and awful leaders. When you’re running a business that size, you’d better hire a bunch of very strong people to handle its various parts. Because no matter how smart you are, there are only two ways you can come up with all of the good ideas you implement in your organization: Either hire people who have no good ideas; or ignore every voice other than your own.
Imagine another news story, also about an entrepreneurship-made-good. Only instead of the proprietors talking about everything they had done to make their business a success they’d said something like this:
“We realized early that marketing would be the key to our success, so we hired Andy Anderson, who’s an absolute genius at it. He put a program together that really made the difference between our sales and those of our competitors.
“We also knew we’d need several rounds of venture capital. Several friends of ours mentioned a woman named Jill Johnson, so we just kept after her until she agreed to join us. The fact of the matter is, investors love her — she talks straight and answers their questions in ways that give them confidence in us. And she knows the process inside and out. The one round of financing we handled ourselves was utter chaos. Once she took it over, it ran like clockwork.
“Then there’s Steve Smith. Neither of us is particularly disciplined in how we go about things. So as soon as we could afford to do it we brought in Steve as our Chief Operating Officer. He’s the one who recognized just how much money was walking out the door because we were being sloppy and really turned the place around.”
Individual contributors succeed by some combination of being smarter, selling ideas better, and working harder and longer hours than anyone else. Too many business leaders think they’re supposed to succeed the same way. Their egos are out in front. It’s a bad place for their egos to be, because it makes them easy to manipulate.
Nothing about this is a matter of ethics. It’s about you as leader of an organization and what will make you more successful. More, it’s about your ability to market yourself as a leader. “What I’m good at is recognizing talented people, recruiting them, and creating conditions that let them do important things,” is simply a better marketing message for the product that is you than “I’m the smartest person in the room.”
To prove the point, ask yourself which message — “Here’s how smart we are” or “Here are the great people who created our success” — sound like it comes from better leaders and businessmen. Not much of a contest, is it?
And if, by some strange chance, you also care about motivating the people who work for you to excel, re-read the two alternatives and ask yourself which pair of entrepreneurs you’d work harder for. The ones who take credit for your great ideas and hard work?
Or the two who give you credit for theirs.