Why small business owners are like distracted drivers

Published: Friday, June 7 2013 10:45 a.m. MDT

Like a driver behind the wheel, small business owners need to keep focused to be effective.


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Anyone who shares the road with automobiles can’t help but notice how many drivers aren’t really paying attention. Because I need to know if you see me, I’m looking into your car as I ride by — just before you dart in front of me because you didn’t see me. Every day, without exception, I see people texting on their phone, applying makeup, combing their hair, doing almost anything but focusing on what they’re supposed to be doing, namely driving the car.

I’ve even developed a game. I call it, “What stupid thing are you going to do in front of me today?” It’s amazing how many people drift into someone else’s lane, dart across multiple lanes of traffic because they missed their exit, or enter the freeway without making sure someone isn’t already where they want to go. Sometimes that someone is even me. Close calls aren’t a daily occurrence, but anyone on a bicycle or a motorcycle can tell you they happen way too often.

I have to wonder; does this same lack of attention intrude on other parts of life too?

I think most small-business owners would agree that to be successful, you’ve got to focus your attention on the right things. I’ve spent most of my life in small business (more than 30 years) and have noticed a number of behaviors many small-business owners struggle with that distract them from the things that are really important:

1.“If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.” This is a myth. If you live by this mantra, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — and you won’t like the results. Granted, your employees might not do it the same way you would do it, but that’s OK. My first boss thought it was his way or the highway. He spent so much time making sure we all did things his way that his business struggled. He was a classic micro-manager, although we didn’t call him that at the time. We called him something else. Something the Deseret News wouldn’t publish. His time would have been better spent trying to figure out how to capture more market share, how to motivate his employees and how to facilitate an environment where people could perform at their best. Because he was distracted, his employees weren’t able to give him their best work.

2.“I know more about what my customers need than they do.” This is more of a delusion than a myth, but the result is the same. Many Main Street business owners really are experts at what they do, but this makes it far too easy to be distracted by technical expertise. Early in my career I worked as a field salesman for an industrial supply company. We sold drill bits, grinding wheels and cutting tools. One of the “old timers” once said, “Don’t assume your customer wants a drill bit, what he really wants is a hole.” You could take it one step further by finding out what the hole is for, which might reveal an even better solution than the hole, but you get the point. How many times are we distracted by trying to force what we think is a great solution into an application it really isn’t suited for? Wouldn’t it be time better spent focused on understanding our customers' challenges and then trying to help them find a solution?

3.“My employees are lazy.” Although this might be true, it’s probably your fault. A few months back I wrote about how my dad was way too distracted by what time his employees left at the end of the day. He asked, “Do you have your track shoes on?” to someone almost every day. He had many good employees who worked hard, but he felt like you were a slacker if you weren’t in the office earlier than you needed to be and left at 5 p.m. when the workday was over. As a result, it didn’t take good employees long to become what he had labeled them. I’ve met very few people who wake up thinking, “Today I wanna suck.” Most people I know want to perform at their best and be successful. Our job as leaders is to create an environment where they can. Focusing too much attention on how much time someone spends at the office is not the way to do it.

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