As I imagine most business owners are, I was very sceptical about taking on a business coach. I remember telling Vanessa just that at our first meeting, and giving her a hard time. Purely because I needed to see what the potential results of such an arrangement would be. What could she possibly do to help me when I had spent the last 20 years working in every aspect of my business? I knew what needed to be done better than she would.
I often think that small business owners in Australia have one of the hardest jobs in the world. Staff, computers, bureaucracy, tax, legal responsibilities and regulatory requirements, co-ordination of production and import/ export to and from many locations and all of the logistics and increasing regulation involved in that, not to mention product design, staying at the forefront of technology, keeping demanding customers happy and finding new business when orders slow down. It all adds up to a great deal of stress. The list is never ending as a business owner and there is never enough of you to go around.
In my case I had been doing it for a very long time. I was good at it but I was tired of doing it on my own. In 20 years I’d seen pretty much everything. I was jaded and frankly depressed, although I would never have admitted it. My options were to get big, get small or get out. To get bigger I would have had to work even harder and go offshore. I was just too exhausted. To get small was not a real option. Businesses don’t thrive unless you are pushing them, you can’t just cruise and I wasn’t about to let all I have worked for shrink until it became a shadow of what it is now while I played golf or something. Not my style. Getting out was an option but I never thought I would be able to sell at a price that compensated me for everything I had put into it, and my father before me. He had retired 10 years earlier and I was to inherit the business I had been working in all my life. Problem was I was 40 and still hadn’t inherited it, and didn’t really want to. Although he started it I was responsible for taking it from a company turning over $700k to over $10 million. He thought he had done me a big favour and given me a leg up in life. I felt like he’d saddled me with a burden and never acknowledged what I had sacrificed to get it to where it is. Our relationship wasn’t good. If I sold it would be like letting him down and I would have to pay him out so the price would have to be right or neither of us would get the amount we wanted. No wonder I was depressed. I was cynical about everything. Someone who hasn’t had a family business could never understand that. Working 15 hour days under constant stress I didn’t understand it either.
It was into this background that Vanessa unwittingly strode a few years ago. It was because I was at a low ebb that I let her in in the first place. I gave her a hard time, she soon sensed it was no good initially to motivate me to set goals and get a vision for where we needed to go. She drew on her experience and patience and listened to me while our weekly meetings became an occasion for me to vent my spleen at everything that was wrong with the country, with staff, with the government and the world in general. Despite being exhausted there was no problem with my level of motivation or nervous energy. I’m a fairly aggressive person by nature and I had years of pent up anger for which I had had no outlet for a long time. I told her I didn’t have time for some trumped up American style hype about being a successful entrepreneur and I gave her every other reason why it wouldn’t work. She took it in her stride and probably wondered what she had got herself in for. But she listened to me. To this day I am profoundly grateful for the fact that she just listened. That’s not her natural personality but she kept herself in check and just listened. Just as well she did because I didn’t care if she helped me or not at that stage. This helped me to work things out of my system to the point where I could start to focus again. Soon she started giving as good as she got. We would set weekly and monthly goals. Some of them involved difficult things like getting rid of bad staff and were intensely difficult for me, but for the first time I had support. Men try not to take these things home and burden their wives or friends with it. At least I didn’t. So I was on my own in running the company and I felt that responsibility very strongly and put myself under a lot of pressure. Having Vanessa supporting me was a fundamental thing that helped.
We slowly implemented new systems to all aspects of the company from quoting customers to controlling stock. She worked directly with my staff. We implemented so many efficiencies that some old staff who had become passengers and didn’t like the changes left of their own accord. I needed to see change and it was happening. We implemented a real budget and for the first time I was not just running on instinct but had the evidence on paper to see what was really going on. This is a huge step for any small business. We also worked on vision. I decided my vision was to get the company running so well and so profitably that I could either take time off or sell while it was on the up. Deep down I didn’t want to still be doing the same thing in 20 years time. It was never my business. It was my fathers and although I had done well I had never really wanted to do it in the first place. Not an easy thing to decide when you are so busy you don’t have time to step back and get some perspective. With that light at the end of the tunnel I had something to work towards. Vanessa was a business coach. It could be argued that she was better off keeping me where I was, but she didn’t. She worked to my vision rather than hers. To a cynic like me who felt like everyone was trying to screw him that was really something. She was helping even though if we sold we would probably be taken over by a bigger company who would probably not require her services. She was working herself out of a job. That takes someone with character.
In the end we turned over 12 million with a 6 million dollar net profit. I don’t know many companies who can say that they have done those figures. We did sell. We were bought by a big company from Sydney and it became clear that what we had done over the last few years to our little company was really special. Many of our systems have been adopted by this bigger company. Put simply we were doing things better and more efficiently than they were by a country mile. I’m still employed by that company for the moment and I have my mojo back. Although it’s not easy working for someone else and it’s harder to get them to adopt new strategies because they are bigger, I have the confidence that they bought us because they need to do what we have already achieved. Most importantly it’s not forever and what I have achieved for myself is freedom.
Vanessa is fundamentally good with people. She is smart and learns quickly. She has earned everything she has including respect. Business coaching is not an easy business because people will resist change. It’s really about taking people who are serious about improving and helping them be the best they can be. If you don’t want to be better don’t waste your time or that of the coach. A professional athlete doesn’t employ a coach unless they help them win. And if you do want to be better, don’t expect it to be easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. Vanessa challenged me in ways I didn’t expect and the two of us achieved outcomes that neither would be able to envisage at the beginning. It was a relationship. Certain tried and tested formulas work but business is fundamentally about relationships and getting stuck in and making things happen. The coaching relationship I had with Vanessa helped me get the results I needed and that’s all there is to it.