I call them road shows, high profile groups that advertise the dates they will be in ‘your area’ offering a free seminar on how to sell your business. As a matter of curiosity I would ask clients and business acquaintances if they planned to attend. Their almost universal response: “Are you kidding me, why would I want anyone in this town to know I was thinking about selling?” The shields of privacy go much deeper than that.
Over the years I’ve been in social situations with clients, at bank symposiums, community events, lunch “at the club” and more. In almost every instance a client would ask or be asked “how’s business?” and predominantly the response would be similar to, “good, we’re up 7% over last year” or “we’re off to a heck of a start” or the patented “couldn’t be better!” Yet in many of those encounters I knew the response was not accurate.
More candid responses could have included “terrible, we just took a dive on a $300,000 receivable” or “this economy has put our market in the tank and we’re losing serious money every month” or “it will be in the news within a week, we have a major lawsuit being filed against us by a competitor.” In my view, the neutral to positive responses were not intended to be deceitful but rather set forth as defenses.
For me, and perhaps some of you, it’s difficult to share business challenges if there is no benefit in doing so—and worse, it risks such details finding their way to suppliers, competitors and others who may use them to their advantage. Regardless of the size of an enterprise, the old adage “it’s lonesome at the top” rings true. Few can go it alone, and if we are to make the best decisions, particularly in times of stress, we will do so with input from others, not in a vacuum.
I began to learn this lesson when I was hired as president of a manufacturing company. Early on I found myself calling former peers at my big company alma mater. . .just to talk. I felt I had no one with whom I could discuss the business problems I faced and my own insecurities prevented me from talking to my chairman. Soon enough I found the guide posts I needed in two independent directors. They listened and they shared but they never told me what to do.
In the years that followed, I typically became one of those “listeners” for my clients. There was no risk for them as we were bound by confidentiality and we shared the same success goals for their enterprises. I always encouraged them to find more resources though as my participation was a moment in time. Some expanded their “cabinet” through contacts in industry associations while others met great success by joining CEO forums, both regional and national.
They learned to trust those who earned it, they valued the influence of a sounding board and they found comfort in their Rolodex when they needed to talk. Years later, in another executive position, I again set up similar guideposts for myself. Prominently included were an independent director, the CEO of a publicly traded company I first met when he purchased a past client and a board advisor with significant subject matter expertise.
Everybody needs someone to talk to. While we can and should expect our senior leadership teams to find solutions to problems specific to their responsibilities, for those problems we face alone, we can’t say to them, “This thing has really gotten to me and I can’t figure a way out.’ When we are in that moment, as I have been many times, humility and trusted lifelines can ease the path forward.