This article from Entrepreneur magazine really hit home for me. I have lived through this scenario several times during the 20+ years of owning several businesses. Here is a summary for those who just want the meat:
“One of the most significant things you can control is association — your choices of who you permit into your world, who you give time to or invest time with, and who you look to for ideas, information and education.
…It’s not an easy thing to face facts about a friend, family member, long-time employee or long-time vendor when they are, in some way, interfering with or disapproving of your accomplishment. It’s important to face these facts and to act on them because the more time you spend with people who are unhelpful, unsupportive, disrespectful, envious, resentful, dysfunctional or outright damaging to you, the less value all your time has.
…Few people can so perfectly compartmentalize that they can lock every thought, assertion and act of a toxic person in a little mind box and without leakage into other mind boxes. Paraphrasing a Chinese proverb (I found in a fortune cookie), if you lie down with mongrel dogs, even for a short nap, you wake up with fleas — and they ride with you wherever you go.
…Even if you’re associating only occasionally or briefly with someone who is intellectually or emotionally toxic or someone who is feckless and inept, it’s enough time for the fleas to leap from them to you, burrow in and be carried away by you to subtly affect your performance and productivity.
…Many small businesses wind up with a ruthlessly defensive key person who goes into murder mode anytime an attempt is made to add a second person but is “otherwise” terrific.
…On the other hand, constructive association with creative, inspiring, encouraging people can do a great deal to bolster your performance, thus making your time more valuable. Each minute of your time is made more or less valuable by the condition of your mind, and it is constantly being conditioned by association.
…Playing this game in a compromised mental state, weakened or wounded by poor ideas and attitudes seeded into the mind by association, is extremely difficult.
…Simply put, you want to deliberately reduce and restrict the amount of your time left vulnerable to random thought or association, and deliberately, sharply reduce the amount of time given to association with people who won’t make any productive contribution and may do harm.” — Entrepreneur Magazine
I have especially had experience with the “one key person” as above. I have experienced this twice. Neither turned out very well, and in both cases it took significantly longer than it should have for me to figure out what was going on. In both cases, the business bottom line and the morale of the other team members suffered. I tend to really want to believe in, coach and help my team members. Sadly though, sometimes that dedication and kindness has been a shortcoming. This is something I still struggle with.
Employee relationships can also turn stale over time. Sometimes, certain people can become so caught up in how it is and how it has been that they can become overtly or subtly resistant to new ideas and evolutions. They allow their own fear of change to stifle their growth and often even the growth of team members or the company as a whole. They are afraid to push beyond their current skills, fearing failure or the appearance of it. So, they remain stagnant. They stifle ideas that could lead to change. They resist, refute and refuse to cooperate. They are negative when changes to the way things have been emerge, even when they are clearly needed. They can do immense damage to your business, since they can interfere with organic growth, maturity and market evolution. In the end, when you look back on it, it seems clear that they simply needed to move on, to find someplace where their fears of change or growth could be managed. If they won’t rise to the occasion to conquer their fears, you simply have to understand and try to assist them, but you CAN NOT let their fears impact the natural growth of the company or the evolution of your products and services as needed by your clients and customers. To do so is a lose/lose. Guard against this by careful and honest vigilance. Be willing to honestly see each person and identify if the current path is right for them and right for your company. If not, then it may be time for deeper teaching or a change of team members.
Personal association can also be an issue. I remember well, a close friend I had been hanging around with for several years. He was also a fellow entrepreneur and we would often trade pitch ideas and work together to help each other refine concepts and marketing and strengthen ideas for new products and services. We would meet for coffee a couple of times a month. But slowly, the relationship took a different turn. In hindsight, it soured, but I am still not sure why. Over time, I noticed he began to focus on the negatives of my ideas. He would dissuade me from working on this project or launching a new product. Time and time again, it was negative. Finally, in the end, when it became apparent, I began to trim back on our meetings and eventually, the relationship fell away quickly and dramatically. However, that negativity caused me to miss launching two products and be slow launching a new service offering. That did damage to my businesses and some of the impacts were fairly long term. The world is full of people who will crush your ideas. In fact, finding someone who will support them is a pretty rare thing. I always strive to be the latter and I try to associate with folks who will give honest feedback, but will be supportive of even a wacky idea or two if they find that they might have merit.
I am not a fan of trimming away relationships. I love people. I am often way too loyal, even to those who would not be loyal to me. I am over trusting, overly friendly, and many times, too slow to realize that I am being taken advantage of. Having a big heart can sometimes be a problem for entrepreneurs and I have seen it cause me pain many times in my career. However, I would not change it. I would not close my heart for all of the success in the world. To me, a balance must be possible and it is that balance that I am continually seeking. From the board room to the coffee house and from the tech labs to my dinner table, I am trying to find the balance between an open heart and vigilance. But that, my friends, thus far, has been a good problem to have.
As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to share your ideas, feedback or thoughts with me via the comments or via Twitter (@lbhuston).