Hurry Up and Wait
Everybody who goes into business wants to make things happen, but you're heading for trouble if you let your sense of urgency dictate your decisions
One thing I've noticed about the young entrepreneurs who come to me for advice: they're all in a big hurry. They have a tremendous sense of urgency about achieving whatever goal they've set for themselves. Most of them have already decided on their next step, and they're on the verge of taking it. What they want from me is encouragement. What they get is advice to stop and think.
Listen, you should never make important business decisions when you're feeling driven by urgency. I don't care whether the urgency is coming from your own impatience or from other people putting pressure on you. If you feel as though you have to make the decision right away, don't. Why not? Because you won't think it through the way you should, and there's a very good chance that your decision will come back to haunt you.
I'm not saying it's an easy rule to follow. Most entrepreneurs are impatient people by nature. You wouldn't go into business in the first place if you didn't feel a strong desire to get somewhere, to make things happen. But that same desire can turn into your worst enemy if you don't learn how to control it. Unfortunately, some of us have to get whacked in the head before we realize the danger.
I got my whack in the late 1980s as a result of some horrible decisions that almost put me out of business. My driving passion at the time was to take my messenger company to $100 million in sales. Where that number came from, I have no idea. I probably chose it because it was big enough to fit my ego. In any case, $100 million was my goal, and I was totally focused on achieving it.
We'd gotten up to about $50 million in sales when a friend of mine came to me with a tempting proposition. One of my competitors, a $50-million company in its own right, was available at a good price. There were some problems, of course. For one thing, the company was technically insolvent--that is, its current liabilities exceeded its current assets. For another, it owed a ton of money to the outside agents who did its pickups and deliveries around the country. Beyond that, its salespeople were out of control, selling at any price they pleased. But the company did have that $50 million in sales, which would take me to my magic number in one fell swoop.
It was a bad deal. In my heart, I knew it was a bad deal. From a business standpoint, there was no justification for doing the acquisition. My inner voice was saying, "Are you nuts? You need these problems like a hole in the head. What if something unexpected happens--as it always does? You're putting the whole company at risk."
But you don't listen to your inner voice when you're being driven by a sense of urgency. You override your good instincts. You make excuses. You tell yourself what you want to hear. I'd turned around other insolvent companies before. I knew how to handle salespeople. I could deal with any problem they threw at me. Hey, I felt like Superman.
So I went ahead and bought the company. Fourteen months later, we filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11.
Over the next three years, as we worked our way out of Chapter 11, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I'd done wrong. There was more to it than one bad decision. That decision was connected to some fundamental character traits. I'm a strong-willed, aggressive person. I have a need for instant gratification. I do things on the spur of the moment, without considering the consequences or consulting with other people. And when I set a goal for myself, I'm single-minded about achieving it--even if it turns out to be the wrong goal.
All of those traits played a role in my decision to go forward with the acquisition, against my better judgment. Looking back, moreover, I could see that they'd led me to make countless other mistakes over the years, in my personal life as well as in business. Somehow I had to figure out a way to control those tendencies. I knew that I probably couldn't get rid of them. They were too deeply embedded in my personality. But I didn't want to go on letting them make my decisions for me.
So I came up with a rule: Don't make any major decision without taking a shower. By "major," I mean a decision that will have long-range consequences. I'm not talking about day-to-day issues; I deal with those as they arise. But if an opportunity presents itself, or if there's a big problem to handle, or if we have to make a change in the way we operate, I always take a shower before I decide.
Now, understand that while I do my best thinking in the shower, I don't have time to take one during the day. So I'm actually telling myself to put off the decision for 24 hours. That was difficult to do, at least in the beginning. I like to make instant decisions. When people want me to do something, I have trouble saying, "Look, I've got to think about it."
What I needed was a mechanism I could use to slow myself down, and the shower rule served the purpose. It was a way of selling myself on the idea of waiting. It forced me to give myself time to think through the decision, to hear what other people had to say. Often I wound up doing the same thing I'd have done in the first place, but I did it with the confidence of having gone through the right thought process. And sometimes that thought process would save me from a mistake I was about to make, or point me to an opportunity I'd have otherwise missed.
My shower rule eventually became a habit. I learned to recognize the sense of urgency and stop it in its tracks. Now, whenever there's a big decision to make, I put it off automatically. My managers accuse me of procrastinating, but they're wrong. What I'm doing is giving my unconscious mind a chance to work on the problem. I'm making sure that my sense of urgency doesn't drown out my inner voice.
I've noticed a similar trait in other successful businesspeople. Nothing is urgent for them. They don't rush into decisions prematurely. They've learned how to take four steps back, weigh all the factors, and decide calmly how to proceed.
But stepping back doesn't come easily to young entrepreneurs who are eager to get ahead. The fear, of course, is that they'll lose the opportunity in front of them. It's a feeling that smart salespeople know how to cultivate. They make you believe that the opportunity they're offering today won't be around tomorrow, and then they use your sense of urgency to push you to a fast decision.
With age and experience, however, you learn two things: first, that the world is full of great opportunities, more than you can ever take advantage of, and second, that real opportunities don't disappear. I can't think of a single one I've lost since I adopted my shower rule.
And, meanwhile, I'm just about the cleanest CEO in town.
Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include an Inc. 100 company and a three-time Inc. 500 company. This column was coauthored by Bo Burlingham.
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