It's impossible to be completely prepared for the realities of building a successful business. Don't get me wrong-- theoretical knowledge is tremendously valuable, whether you're formally schooled or self-taught.
But as economist E.F. Shumacher famously observed, "An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory." Nowhere is this more true than in leadership.
I should know, having erred plenty during my career. I have over 120 employees; missteps are inevitable. I'm a work in progress, but embracing that fact has helped me create an open and transparent organization.
Here's a catalog of a few of my more egregious blunders that might be useful for up-and-coming employers, and the important lessons they taught me:
1. Think before you speak.
I once told a colleague that I liked her shirt. She seemed pleasantly surprised, and mentioned that it was the first time I'd offered her a clothing-related compliment in the many years we'd worked together. I replied that I'd never seen her wear anything nice before.
Horrifying. I was highly embarrassed, yet grateful she knew me well enough to laugh at me rather than take offense. I meant something totally different from what left my mouth, but spoke before I thought.
Never speak before you think. You're in charge; your words have extra impact. If this is a problem for you, practice silently counting to two before answering any question. It's better to appear slow than rude, and you'll soon get the hang of it.
2. Be intentionally appreciative.
I live in California, but my company's main office is in Utah. I spend a lot of time in the Beehive State, and it used to be a major pain in the butt to travel. I was sick of hotels and rental cars and interminable waits in morning traffic.
All that changed thanks to the untiring labors of an employee that spearheaded the purchase and preparation of a beautiful company apartment within walking distance of the office.
She killed it. She picked out the furniture and supervised its assembly; she stocked the cupboards, refrigerator, and pantry; she hung towels in the bathrooms and a flat screen in the living room; she even talked her husband into flying out for a weekend to help put up curtains and install a security camera.
On my first night there, as I sank into bed with a sigh of relief, I expressed my appreciation for this woman's amazing efforts by texting her as follows:
Apartment needs more hangers, dental floss, and Advil PM.
Can you imagine? I hurt the feelings of a teammate I genuinely cared for. I was indebted to her when she had the courage to confront me about it during our next one on one, because it gave me an opportunity to offer a heartfelt apology.
It also allowed me to thank her and her husband on behalf of the company by sending them to dinner on the company's dime. I hadn't been intentionally rude that evening--I was just tired, and decided to fire off a short list of requests before I fell asleep and forgot.
Didn't matter. Leaders are often tired. We're often hungry, stressed, and pushed to our limits, but that's what we signed up for when we took the job.
When someone goes the extra mile for you, take immediate steps to show that you recognize and appreciate their service. A simple but earnest expression of praise--thank you, awesome stuff, admirable work--is a powerful force for good.
3. Don't overlook your best employees because of prior experience.
At one of my former companies I needed a leader for my sales team. I eventually found someone outside the organization. A couple months into the new guy's tenure, one of my best salespeople gave me notice that he'd accepted an offer as head of sales somewhere else.
I was really upset by the news. When I hired him, it was only his second sales job, so he was pretty wet behind the ears. His progress was consistent but incremental, and our daily proximity caused me to develop blinders regarding his true potential.
When he told me he was leaving, the blinders fell away. I saw that he was a natural leader whom others admired and followed in spite of his lack of a title. I saw that he was an ideal fit for the role I'd already filled--with a person, incidentally, who was gone within the year.
I learned a lesson that day that followed me wherever I went from then on. Forget how a person started; only see what they've become. If you don't, someone else will.