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Maintaining Relevance Over Decades

Click here if you would rather listen to this blog entry (7:39).

It’s too raw to talk much about yet, but I nearly lost my business in 2013. The entire year was largely an epic fail and only now--with the situation in the rearview mirror--can I see it with any sort of perspective. I’ll write a blog post about it shortly (or maybe a book), but one of the threads weaving through those events is this notion of remaining relevant, and for a long time. On the drive to the cabin yesterday, where I am now, thoughts began to flow about just that. I wanted to formulate a perspective about being relevant over several decades, and I was thinking of myself and of you as this began to take shape.

  1. Maybe it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: it presumes that you are relevant in the first place. A certain relevance accompanies anyone making a living and helping employees make a living. That’s noble and rewarding, and it’s how developed economies thrive. But I’m talking here about rising from your peers as a leader, and that requires that you see all the same things they do but that you observe different things than they merely see. You develop a perspective that other people--not just you--believe to be unique and they pay you money to help them observe, too.
  2. Maintaining relevance doesn’t necessarily mean that you are consistently relevant to the same people. As your strengths deepen and creep, you may need a different audience if you want to remain relevant to anybody. Your audience will change organically, in good ways, and you will even lose part of your audience in that process. Just be sure it’s because they can’t keep up and not because they quit learning from you. This is one of the larger tensions I have struggled to navigate.
  3. It is solidly a privilege to remain relevant for decades and most definitely not a right. Doing great work once means that you have just one more chance to do great work again, and so the cycle repeats itself. But the cycle can be broken for any reason at any point in time.
  4. While I think that luck plays an outsized role in being relevant in the first place, I don’t think luck has much of any role in being relevant for decades. That result comes from....
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Life is What Happens WHILE You Fix It

My Declaration for Your 2014: The Year of Your Own Oxygen Mask

This year I will jot down some clever ways to peg the amount of "care" my clients bring to the table, and I will willingly match that level, just because it's the right thing to do. But for my own sake, I will not exceed that level, just because it's also the right thing to do.

I will quit pretending to solve the potable water crisis in Africa and I will take a glass of cold, refreshing water to a randomnly chosen employee on occasion. I am tired of the hypocrisy of wanting to change that world while being a #@%!) shitty manager in this one.

Not inconsistent with this, I will finally boot that one employee out of the nest. Yes, they have done every job in the place and been with me as the organization has matured, but they no longer have the presence, objectivity, ability, or hunger that we need. If I hear them tell one more new employee that they've been here the longest, have done every job, and know how and when to present things to me, I may just make a decision on the spot.

I will be so, so grateful for whatever health and intelligence I've managed to retain through these years. [Pause and be grateful, please.] I won't view life as something that happens after I fix it, but something that happens while I fix it. The journey itself must be savored, along with the control and freedom and opportunities I have to NOT feed the machine.

If what I've just said still doesn't...

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Reconsidering A Relationship with Money

I don't think I've ever posted a blog entry this long, but if you read it like I did, you'll forget about time and be so engaged that you read it all. It's from a friend (Schuyler Brown) who consults out of NYC. She graciously allowed me to publish this. More about her work at the end. Broadly, the subject of this is money and life, and based on the questions I've been getting recently, many of you are thinking about just that.


Like many Americans post-recession, I've been taking a close look at my relationship to money. To my surprise, what started simply as a responsible exercise turned into a deeply instructive philosophical journey.

I'd been ignoring the task of addressing my ideas about money for years, hiding behind an image of myself as Bohemian, an artist, a spiritual aspirant. Money seemed something too concrete to factor into my flights of fancy. Even as an entrepreneur I never stopped to think much about money. I worried when I wasn't making it and was jubilant when I was...it was a roller coaster.

It was my daughter's birth two years ago that unexpectedly initiated a shift in my approach to money, because she shifted my entire perspective on the future. Her presence forced me to imagine a future I'd been happy to leave to chance. One day, exiting the subway on my way home, I caught myself with a furrowed brow worrying once again about the numbers in our bank accounts...this time with no regard for my own needs, but for hers alone. I heard a steely voice of resolve somewhere deep inside say, "I never want her to suffer the burden of financial strain." At that moment, I felt my actual walk change. I became more directed.

But it wasn't until an incident this summer....

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What Success Looks Like at Your Firm

A great client recently asked me to outline my definition of success for their firm. I really enjoyed doing that, and below is a version that you can adapt to your own situation, putting your own stamp on it:

  • Partner compensation equals or exceeds industry benchmarks.
  • After that is achieved, you still 20% net profit.
  • The more entrepreneurial employees are satisfied that their contribution to your gain is recognized and accounted for.
  • Partners and employees in key roles will have already tasted competence in the area of your focus, or they will experience it within nine months of joining the firm.
  • There will be few or no young employees who value variety over expertise.
  • When employees talk about your firm, while still employed, their private comments will be complimentary.
  • When partners and employees head out the door to work for the day, they look forward to the challenges, the companionship, and their participation in the overall culture.
  • As a firm you will not require extraordinary people....
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Why Your Firm Might Fail...and Preventing It

Forgive me for the ominous subject line of this email, but there are times when it's best to be objective and forthright. I've been talking with the executives of large associations and educational institutions in this field, hoping they'll drop the status quo and beginning offering real help to their members and graduates. So far I've made very little progress, so I'm just going to use my own platform (16,000+ of you).

Look around, think back through the last decade, and make a mental list of the firms you knew that are no longer around. Did any of them fail for lack of creativity? Even if you don't think they were that creative, the answer is a resounding "NO". Here is why those firms--and possibly yours, if you don't listen--will cease to exist, in descending order. I'm going to list seven reasons firms fail, and then seven things to keep a very close eye on.

What to Keep An Eye On

  • Make Poor Business Decisions. I'm thinking of things like leasing too much space, incurring debt instead of examining the issues behind why you need it, spending more than 45% of your AGI on compensation, establishing unnecessary satellite offices, ignoring standard embezzling safeties, and not really understanding what the financials are saying.
  • Let Growth Happen to You. This is the land of opportunity, as we're told from a young age, and so one of the most difficult decisions an entrepreneur must make is to turn down opportunity. By avoiding that, they let the marketplace determine how large they will be, in spite of all the additional management load that brings, and worse yet they match their capacity to their opportunity and forgo the ability to say no to clients who don't fit. Eventually they end up consistently accepting work to keep the butts in the seats busy, focusing on cash-flow rather than profit.
  • ...
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What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

I'm 51, so I figure I'd better get this right pretty soon. :) I think about this a lot, though. The common thread through the last 25 years, though, is that I've worked for myself. That's a lot of years without a safety net, and it's also a lot of years to learn habits that would make it almost impossible for me to work for someone else.

About 20 years ago, though, I put together this list. At the time, I felt like most of my life was ahead of me and that I wanted as many options as possible. So there's very different from each other, and it was just me dreaming one day:

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