Category Archives: Improving Your Business Leadership

When People Say, “You Can’t Do that,” it is Usually Because They Never Thought To Do It

Success is more about doing what others have not thought to do, than it is about trying to do what literally can’t be done.

No one knows how many great concepts, ideas, careers and enterprises have languished because individuals have fallen prey to the admonition of others that what they want to do “can’t be done.”

It is true that there may be many things we can’t do, but that has more to do with physical attributes – or lack thereof – than it does the ability to do something that has not been done. For Reflectionexample, you’ll probably never be able to throw a 97-mile-per-hour fastball no matter how fervently you may want to. You probably can’t hit a 97-mile-per-hour fastball either. But when you put those physical attributes aside, most of those who tell you that what you want to do can’t be done, it is simply because they don’t know how to do it. The assumption is that if they can’t do it, then you can’t do it either. And in the end, this is what separates success from failure, winners from losers.

New Rules for What Can be Done

Doing what others think can’t be done requires three crucial ingredients. First, you need the capacity to recognize when the rules that defined what could or could not be done have become outmoded and should no longer be followed. Second, the timing has to be right to do what others believe can’t be done. Thirdly, those who are successful doing what others say can’t be done also have a plan for how to do it. But with knowledge, good timing, creative planning and effort, it is amazing what can be done.

Nowadays, we have a name for those prescient individuals who capture these three attributes. They’re called “disruptive innovators.” And they’re radically changing the very definition of what can and cannot be done in business.

We take the existence of FedEx and the services it provides for granted now, but that was not the case in 1965 when Fred Smith envisioned a company that could deliver packages and letters overnight. No one in the “mail” business, or any other business for that matter, believed it could be done. Not even in 1971, when on its first day of operation FedEx used 14 planes to deliver 186 packages to 25 different cities, did many believe it could be done consistently. From conception to execution, Fred Smith heard only “you can’t do that.” Yet, that idea that couldn’t be done was done and in a short 10 years FedEx changed the definition of “mail” and became the first company to generate over $1 billion in revenues. Talk about disruptive innovation. FedEx is the very definition.

The reality is that if Fred Smith had proposed his idea in 1950, the naysayers would have been right – it couldn’t have been done. The technologies and facilities to support his idea simply did not exist. So the rule, “you can’t do that” would have been valid. But Fred Smith was in the right place at the right time to break the rule, because technology was available to make it possible. In 1965 Smith was not the only person who could have created an overnight delivery service, but he was the only one who recognized that the “you can’t do that” rule was obsolete; even more importantly, he was the only one who figured out how to do it.

“You Can’t Do That” Is Personal

The reason I find the “you can’t do that” admonishment so annoying is probably because I’ve heard it so often in my career. This was especially true when I formed a small group to start a new life insurance company in 1987. At the time there were well over 1,000 life insurance companies operating in the United States and the industry was dominated by over 50, well-established insurance giants. There seemed little need or opportunity for a new life insurance company. On top of that, the natural barriers to entry in the insurance industry such as heavy regulation and the need for huge amounts of invested capital, made formation of a new company almost as impossible as many thought. Almost.

I guess it should not have been a surprise that every time I broached the idea of a new life insurance company it was greeted with, “You can’t do that.” But the truth was another story. The established Innovation-onegiants of the industry looked strong – even invincible – from the outside, but the reality was that they were weakened by slumbering in a world that was awake with change. The insurance industry had done so well for so long (with little real competition) the leaders of the industry failed to recognize changes taking place in the market and even when they did, chose to ignore them. They were wedded to doing what they had always done because that had always been what they did; the status quo was pleasingly comfortable. Only when problems became obvious to everyone did a clarion call emerge from industry leaders suggesting the solution was to, “get back to the basics.” What these industry leaders sadly did not realize, however, was that the basics of their industry had changed.

It turned out that this was the perfect time to start a new life insurance company. Not a company to do what the other companies were doing, but a company with a plan to do what most said couldn’t be done by taking a different approach to products, distribution and corporate culture.

And it worked.

As the established giants in the insurance industry began to teeter and even fail, our company – LifeUSA – formed as a new life insurance company not only survived but became one of the most successful companies in the industry. It is fair to say that by focusing on products that rewarded people for living, rather than dying, LifeUSA forced the entire insurance industry to change.

As with FedEx, LifeUSA could not have happened even 10 years earlier, but the timing was right and even more important was that the timing of the moment was recognized and a plan to take advantage of the moment was offered, even though all were saying, “You can’t do that.”

And the lesson is …

Never be discouraged by the naysayers who are wont to tell you that you can’t do that. In truth, the more who tell you so, the more likely is the opportunity to do what they say can’t be done. Always remember that most will tell you that it can’t be done because they have not thought to do it and even if they have, they have no plan to do it. In reality, you only can’t do something if you don’t know how to do it. If you can recognize the right time to do what has not been done and have a plan to do it, you can do what others say can’t be done.

Live for the Future but Act in the Moment

If it’s not possible to predict the future, why do so many business people try to?

One staple of the business world is the ubiquitous “business plan.” These “plans,” in effect, are a detailed attempt to predict the future by anticipating the environment, actions and results of a company for the next one, three, five or even 10 years. Tell me this: Have you ever met a business plan that has not been reforecast, ignored or forgotten by the time the future it was supposed to predict arrived? Neither have I.

It’s not like these business plans are a broad narrative of the intent or vision of the BusinessPlancompany. No, the typical business plan endeavors to predict the most detailed minutia of the company’s future operations. Right there printed in black and white are the specific prognostications for such things as sales, revenues, taxes, expenses and profits. And then each of these categories is further broken down into specific details. Things like the number, timing and average sale size; employee count, cost of capital, facilities size and overhead are all there down to the last dollar. Right alongside these numbers are extrapolations for what the internal rate of return on invested capital, total return, shareholder equity and something called EBITDA will be years from now.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that if a rational person steps back and objectively looks at this effort they have to ask: Are you kidding me? Who in their right mind would waste their time or put any credence in this type of fortunetelling? (It has been estimated that the cost in time and money wasted on annually developing business plans is greater than the entire GNP of Norway.)

To my way of thinking these business plans are the Tarot cards of the business world. And yet, these concoctions of numerals are used – indeed relied on – by (supposedly) highly intelligent individuals when deciding to invest millions in the operations of a company. Private equity firms are famous for basing a significant part of their investment decisions on the “due diligence” of a company’s business plan. When it comes to start-up companies, venture capitalists have nothing to base their investment decisions on except an out-of-whole-cloth, pie-in-the-sky business plan presented by the entrepreneur. Despite this hocus-pocus sleight-of-hand, investors go forward because the Tarot cards look good and are aligned in the right order. (Or maybe it’s because the PowerPoint presentations are so pretty.)

The Wrong and Right of Business Plans

The real weakness in the traditional business plan process is the failure to acknowledge that getting to the future requires dealing with a multiplicity of possibilities. The only thing static in the business world (other than business plans) is that the world is not static. It is impossible to anticipate what possibilities might become reality and even if that could be done, they do not lend themselves to control.

It is much like the chance of picking a specific set of numbers that will emerge from an infinite number of numbers. In the real world that is called a lottery; in the business world it is called a business plan. No matter how many variable possibilities are planned for, there are an infinite number of possibilities that are not able to be anticipated. This means that the failure of even the most thought out and detailed business plans is about the only thing preordained in the plan.

So what’s the point here? It’s not that you shouldn’t have a plan, but the plan should not be to predict the future, it should be a plan to shape the future. You see, even though it is not possible to predict the future, it is possible to influence and shape it. And that should be the real intent and focus of a business plan.

The best business plan starts with a clear vision of what the company seeks to look like Futureand achieve in the future. This vision must above all be concise, coherent and plausible. Once established the vision must be consistently communicated and staunchly adhered to.

At its founding, the five-year business plan for my company – LifeUSA — was: “In five years LifeUSA will be a national company competing effectively against the largest companies in the industry.” This plan allowed those associated with LifeUSA to live in the future while operating in the moment. Each year the planning process would be predicated on responding to two questions:

  • What can we do better this year to improve on what we did last year?
  • What can we do this year that we didn’t do last year that will get us closer to achieving our plan?

These questions were not answered by plugging wishful numbers into an evanescent future, but by targeting ideas and actions for the present moment in time that would ultimately produce the numbers. This approach to planning offered the flexibility to deal with emerging possibilities – both good and bad – that could not have been anticipated.

At the end of each year those involved in the management of the company were asked to list five specific actions they would take during the next year that would help LifeUSA move closer to its long term vision of being a national company. Once the numbers for the current year were finalized, that same group would be asked to develop specific actions that could be taken to simply make the numbers better in the upcoming year. Other than for budgeting purposes, there was no specific targeting of numbers; only that they increase from the previous year.

The philosophy behind this approach was simple. If the company consistently improved its performance in the moment at hand, the future would always be better than the present. This type of approach to business planning allowed management to quickly adapt to the multiplicity of possibilities that could emerge at any time, but that never can be predicted. In effect, any unanticipated changes – good or bad – played into the strength of our business plan; rather than destroying it premise and credibility. Unlike other company business plans, we didn’t have to worry about trying to predict the unpredictable. Instead, the LifeUSA business plan process allowed the company to concentrate on doing what we could do in the present, so that we could shape the future.  

Passion and Fear are to Entrepreneurial Success What Air and Water is to Life Itself

The longing for success will keep your dream alive, but like a respirator – it only allows you to hang on.

If you think about it, despite all the high-minded philosophical rhetoric, the driving force for the American Revolution boiled down to a very simple concept – Americans wanted to “be their own boss.” And they were willing to do what it took to achieve that end.

This notion of America becoming independent of the British Empire did not just pop up in 1776; the very idea of gaining the freedom to be in control of their own future was the motivation for colonists to come to America in the first place. The desire for a new country that would be free to “be its own boss” had been a dream of Americans for over two centuries. But it was not until after Patrick Henry expressed the passion of “Give me liberty or give me death,” that Americans rose up to realize that dream.

The yearning to be an entrepreneur in order to “be your own boss” is an American dream that has persisted for over 200 years. It would be difficult to find anyone, who at some timeBeYourOwnBoss2 in their life, has not dreamed of being an entrepreneur and their own boss. For most, this dream is visualized in the form of starting their own business. It really makes no difference the size of that company; it can be anything from a car repair shop to a car factory, the impetus to be one’s own boss is the same. The perceived incentive for becoming your own boss is a deep sense of the freedom to decide your own future, unencumbered by the restraints of others. What could be more appealing than that?

Unfortunately for most, the dream of being their own boss is like dangling the carrot on a stick in front of a mule harnessed to a wagon. It’s right there encouraging them to plod forward, but the carrot always remains just out of reach; they never get close enough to take a bite. Often this failure to move ahead is not caused by a lack of desire or opportunity, but more a lack of true passion and fear that causes the dreams of so many to be their own boss to go “poof.” Instead they just keep pulling the wagon forward for others.

Where’s the Passion?

I can’t count the number of individuals who have come to me with dreams of entrepreneurial success and the desire to be their own boss. Some are still in the phase of “thinking” about making the leap, while others have already jumped. All have what they believe to be great ideas and plans for their success. Sure, some are just beguiled by the chance to be their own boss, but still they have specific plans and ideas.

As I listen to their presentations there is one thing I always look for and unfortunately rarely find. What is often missing from their dream is a deep-seated visceral passion for their vision. They lack the passion that causes them to simply have to do something, not just a want to do something. People may have an idea or goal and want to achieve it, but it is passion that makes them do it. Passion is the powerful motivator that not only fuels action, it steels the would-be entrepreneurial boss with the resolve to move forward, meet the challenges and overcome the risks to achieve their goal. It is true that passion can blind one to reality, but I would take “passion” over “want” anytime. Even if passion leads to failure, at least you know you attempted to do what needed to be done.

Many may want to be their own boss as an entrepreneur, but few have the passion it takes to initiate the action to do so or the resolve needed to see it through. I have known individuals who have complained for years about being unhappy and unfulfilled in their current situation. They may even have great plans for moving forward, but they Passionare filled with more wants than passion, and so they keep plodding along chasing that elusive carrot. I have known others who were driven only by passion – lacking realistic ideas and plans – who may have failed, but they were still happier than the carrot-chaser, because at least they tried. (Who can really determine if a passionate person’s ideas are realistic? Was my passion to start a new life insurance company – LifeUSA – in an industry dominated by established giants, realistic?)

It may not be possible to see passion – it does not lend itself to detailed business plans – but you know it when you have it, because it is a feeling that keeps you focused, determined and driving toward a goal no matter what roadblocks are in the path. Without passion, there is little chance you will ever get what you want, because you may never try. With passion propelling you forward, at least you have a chance.

Fear is not what Should be Feared

One of the roadblocks faced by many who want to become their own boss is the fear of failure. They become frozen by the question: If I give up what I have for what I want, what will happen if I fail? This apprehension causes many to continue to dream of being their own boss, but they are forever paralyzed to act. The problem is that they are asking the wrong question. The real question should be: What will happen if I fail to even try to act on the desire to be my own boss?

Fear is as powerful an emotion as passion. Fear is either bad in that it cripples the ability to take action or it can be good in that it motivates action. Fear of trying and failing is threatening and can prevent acting on a dream, but the fear of what will happen if you don’t even try, can be a motivator to take action.

Many are prompted to take action to be their own boss out of fear that if they don’t, others will continue to control their future and failure will be guaranteed.Quote Nothing can be quite as fearsome and demoralizing as looking back on life and thinking, “I should have at least tried.”

In the end, being an entrepreneur and your own boss comes down to having an unquenchable passion to do what you know you should do and the fear that if you don’t act, you will end up feeling more of a failure than if you had tried and failed. Trying and failing is one thing, but not having the passion to act and the fear of not trying is an even greater failure.