Photo: South China Morning Post

POSTED BY: | March 22, 2018

With great joy, SMARI is celebrating its 35th anniversary! This has made me reflect on the ups and downs of my career, and Strategic Marketing and Research Inc’s evolution to SMARI.

As a first-generation college kid, my life’s goal was really to hang out, be cool and make a buck (now often heard around SMARI HQ). Unfortunately, upon graduation, I learned that this disposition does not get you hired. Accompanying this revelation, the first principle of Management 101 popped into mind – Laurence J. Peter’s Principle: “an individual is destined to rise to their level of incompetence, upon which one will be laterally promoted into obscurity”.

I became determined to find my level of incompetence.

My first application of my marketing degree was dialing for dollars. I opened the Yellow Pages of the phone book and called every company under the marketing listing, asking for a job opportunity. I got two opportunities and took one in market research. As that initial experience unfolded, I learned my first five lessons in life – then more accumulated over the years.

What would I have told a 30-year-old Jim? How about during a time of corporate acquisition? Here are the collected lessons from decades of managing an evolving business, split up by the stages where they came into play:

Learn It in Your 20’s

  1. Never let lack of experience get in the way of accepting an opportunity. My naiveté was always my best asset –if I had known what I was getting into, I wouldn’t have!
  2. Stumbling across a way to turn a passion into a livelihood was the best win-win ever.
  3. Doing what one enjoys is good, but it is never good enough to stay in business.
  4. Play to win, but turn all losses into teachable moments.
  5. To remain relevant, stay current. Never stop learning, never stop reading, and never stop sharing.

Somehow, I was fortunate enough to leverage my attention deficit disorder to serve me as I crafted my career. Market researchers tackle a plethora of interesting topics in a fast-paced manner, so boredom is never on the table! My budding career had managed to couple a tailor-made job with my voracious desire to discover how systems, consumers and products function. Doing this, I learned my next five lessons in life:

Earn It in Your 30’s

  1. Regardless of your need to make a sale, never act like it. The client’s success is all that matters.
  2. Surround yourself with individuals who are willing to invest in your passion – the most difficult task ever.
  3. Repeat business is the best confirmation.
  4. Share positive feedback with all who supported the effort – never take ownership of a victory.
  5. Enjoy profitable business cycles, they will not last!

My success with clients put me at odds with my employer. I was transforming our organization’s core product into consultative areas, which proved to be outside their comfort zone. That’s what my experience in grad school had done to me in short order. The result? I was working on my own, in a home office on my new minted Apple computer. Fortunately for me, many clients elected to follow me and my company, comprised of myself and a host of 1099 contract workers. Again, I relearned that very first lesson and let my naivete fortify my willingness to become an entrepreneur. In short order, I learned:

Leverage It in Your 40’s

  1. Champion your client’s best interest in all that you do.
  2. The best way to prevent mistakes is by first selling your ideas to a peer group – you will be humbled.
  3. Never let cost overshadow the quality of the client delivery.
  4. Make sure your CFO is a master cash flow manager, see above!
  5. Continuously ask your clients how you can better serve them.

Within a year, I was signing a personal guarantee to a three-year office lease and buying furniture to accommodate fifteen employees. Signing on to a financial commitment for more money than I was worth created more anxiety than excitement! Regardless, I was surrounded with great folks and we all decided to work hard and play hard (albeit not much playing got done).

Facilitating a Start-Up

  1. Get comfortable with risk by exercising evidence-based calculations.
  2. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, delegate and let go.
  3. Give permission to all members of your team to challenge your way of thinking.
  4. You may know how to make money, but never think you are incapable of making mistakes.
  5. Paying taxes is better that losing money.

To my astonishment, five years into my endeavor of building the company, a major client, BCBS, took me to lunch and asked if I was interested in selling the majority of the company to them. I quickly learned that if the buyer believes your company makes strategic sense for them, an irrefutably great offer follows. As an (admittedly cocky) entrepreneur, I was suddenly expected to put trust into a big business mindset that was supported by a produce-or-perish mandate. While the learning curve was steep, the outcome and life lessons during this chapter were tremendous.

A Chapter of Acquisition

  1. Never judge an opportunity’s value too quickly or too haltingly – listen, learn and act!.
  2. Despite your personal feelings, your banker and your attorney are allies – listen to them.
  3. Finding and keeping talent is an absolute MUST to long-term survival.
  4. Curiosity is an essential ingredient to growing. Listen before speaking (the hardest lesson for me).
  5. Take vacations – this is something I never really learned, but others should.

All was going well, the company was growing and remaining profitable. Then, one morning I read in the Wall Street Journal that our CEO was pivoting the business strategy of the parent company toward a focus upon “core business efforts” and would be jettisoning non-core operations. Well, my operation was the smallest non-core business in a family of over 125 entities. My future was looking a bit bleak. Going back to the life lesson of managing opportunity, I managed to orchestrate a leveraged buyout and SMARI was jettisoned 90 days later. My future looked promising, that said, the multi-million-dollar loan I signed seemed a bit daunting. Once again, a few more life lessons were in the offering.

Lemons to Lemonade

  1. Competition is working hard to put you out of business. Work harder to reciprocate!
  2. Work as hard on growing your team members as much as your company.
  3. To allow others to succeed, also allow them an opportunity to fail.
  4. Challenge ideas but never individuals – always respect the individual, regardless of their opinion.
  5. Forget five-year strategic plans, you must remain agile and willing to reinvent to survive.

Now that I am on the back end of my quest to realize my Peter’s Principle outcome, I am learning the hardest lesson in life: letting go. Implementing a successful succession plan requires one to lead from behind while allowing the next leadership team to craft a pathway different from yours. Of equal importance: one must learn to move away from a position as the center of attention to that of a mentor and promoter of talent and brand. These final life lessons are somehow the most difficult to realize.

Succession Planning

  1. The next generation of leaders are truly gifted and can accomplish awesome outcomes in short order.
  2. No matter how good or indispensable you think you are, you can be replaced!
  3. It’s more rewarding to take pride in the accomplishments of those you work with than in yourself.
  4. Looking backward is never as exciting as looking forward, regardless of its uncertainty.
  5. Fortunately, I ran out of energy before I realized or recognized my version of Peter’s Principle.

No matter what journey you take or where your goals take you, there are life lessons that you must be willing to learn along the way. So, it applies no matter where you come from or where you are going: adopting a willingness to learn must be universal to all.