Confessions of a business owner : How vulnerability helped me and my business
Ok, so I have suffered with low self-esteem for most of my adult life, even though I was running a successful company. I have always thought I wasn’t good enough, that I was blagging it, that I was going to get found out that one day, that I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing. I used to say that it wasn’t my skill that got me to where I am, I was just lucky. I was always putting myself down for one reason or another. I remember I used to cringe at any praise given as I felt like I didn't deserve it.
As an example: If twenty people compliment me for doing something, but then one person said it wasn’t very good, I would somehow forget all about the twenty positive comments and concentrate only on the negative. It sounds really stupid now I am writing about it, but unfortunately. It’s something I have always done.
I certainly don’t have any exam results to shout about, unless you class a CSE grade 1 in Technical drawing from the days when you used a pencil to draw, not a computer! I doubted very much that my academic achievements gave me any right to run a successful company.
You would have certainly never known I was suffering from any lack of self-esteem, why would you? Like a lot of similar sufferers, I wear a mask. Not a real one obviously, more a cold, hard, ‘I’m a serious businessman’ type mask and to most people it was impenetrable. I certainly would never show any sort of vulnerability, as that to me was a weakness and owners of companies could never show weakness, otherwise, people would take advantage and use them against you. After all, I had a business to run, staff to pay and customers to provide a first-class service to. I certainly would never have written anything like this or spoken in public for the fear of being ridiculed and that would have been my worst nightmare.
I was always in awe of people that can write, spell, use correct punctuation and remember the difference between ‘there, their and they’re’. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people as I have to get everything I write checked over by other people before I send it. I think it stems from when I was 8 years old in junior school and I was made to stand up and then chastised in front of the whole class, all because I couldn’t spell the word “Breakfast”. I hated English and school from that moment on. I’m sure the teacher didn’t mean to have such an impact on me, but it’s funny now, how other people’s actions, on this occasion a primary school teacher can have such a major impact on your life.
About 3 years ago, I was meeting with my IT peer group that I am a member of called HTG (www.htgpeergroups.com). It’s a group of like-minded IT business owners from around the world, that meet up 4 times a year. You bring your problems/issues to the group and the group attempt to solve them together, similar to having a group of Non-exec’s working for you and your business. It was obvious during the meeting that I was struggling with understanding my personal purpose in life and that was holding me and my business back. After a heated group discussion that went back and forth many times, it was suggested that I should look to complete my Life Plan (Developed by The Patterson Centre in the USA. (https://patersoncenter.com/)
This involved a Life Plan coach coming to my house for 2 days and at the end of these 2 days, I should hopefully understand what my purpose is. That sounded great to me, so I jumped at the chance.
I don’t want to cover the whole Life plan process as its lengthy, as I hope to write a more in-depth article about it at a later date, but the basics of the Life Plan Process cover the following areas:
• Perspective, where am I now?
• Planning, what’s important now?
• Management, how am I doing?
• Renewal, what needs to change?
Where are you with your:
But for me, one of the biggest challenges was around:
• Where I have been?
• Where am I going?
• What have been turning points along my journey so far?
My wife and I found the whole process, quite hard but thought-provoking, at times, exhausting and definitely the hardest thing I have done, but at the same time fascinating and one of the best things I have ever done.
It’s not a cheap thing to do as it costs around $4000. It’s not for everybody as you have to be 100% ready to put your heart and soul into the whole process, otherwise you would be just wasting your money. One other thing is, your partner must be with you throughout the process, which sounded strange at the time I was told. I always say to others, when asked why your partner must be involved, that it’s just in case you discover that your actual purpose is to be a lion tamer in Africa. Imagine your partner coming home to find a ‘for sale’ sign in the front garden because they weren’t with you during the process? To be honest, the real reason is so they can be involved, understand and support you with the whole life plan journey and process.
OK, so why did I get the courage to start writing articles at 48 years of age? It was mainly down to everything that I discovered about myself during the life plan process and discovering that my purpose was shown to be the following:
To enable others to be the best they can be through creative, unique mentoring.
If I am honest, after suffering from self-esteem issues all my life, I did struggle with this purpose statement. My purpose is for me to be a MENTOR?! Well I did have to laugh. There was not a chance! My initial thoughts were “there is no way, I’m not good enough, clever enough and never will be, the Life Plan must be wrong, maybe I should do it again”.
Then after a couple of months of reading through the charts and notes, it started to sink in. I started to see and imagine myself as a creative mentor, helping other business owners. Well, I do know a few other owners, who I believe have had similar struggles as me. After all, I only ever hear from other business owners moaning about the negatives of owning a business, that everything would be OK without staff /customers/suppliers. Maybe I could help. After all I had been running my own business for 27 years at the time, I must have some skills and experience that I can share to help others.
So where do you start? The 1st thing I did was to start writing down, in detail, my journey of running ATG for the last 27 years. I decided from the start that I was only going to be 100% truthful and honest, at least that way I didn’t need to have a good memory (which is good as that seems to be going now!).
Around the same time as I started to write, amazingly I started speaking at industry events, something else I had never dreamt of doing, for the same reason as not writing. At the time I was 48 and had never even used PowerPoint, having never had a reason to.
Unbelievably to me at the time, both my writing and speaking really took off and I ended up speaking at a couple of events in America as well as in the UK. The more positive feedback I received, the more I wrote and the more I wanted to speak in public. I just couldn’t believe that people would listen to me and want to read what I was saying.
The best thing is the more I did, the more I started to believe in myself. It didn’t seem to matter anymore that I didn’t have exam results. I was good enough. I have since started www.crispleadership.com, which is aimed at helping other small business owners that are lost or on their journey to be the best they can be, by sharing my story, my failures and my successes. I hope to help people realise that they might feel alone running their business, but they really aren’t alone.
I was recently contacted by a person on LinkedIn that I wasn’t connected to. I’m sure you will have seen the type, as I must get 10 requests a week, that can change your life, give you more free time, more money, help you live your dreams’ etc., but when you look at what they have done from their job list it isn’t much at all. Their email pitch was quite good though and it intrigued me, so I started up a LinkedIn email conversation with them. I sent him a link to my website for Crisp Leadership and pointed them to the story tab, as this would give them a better understanding as to where I was currently with my plans. I have to say I was amazed by his response. He basically said my website was rubbish, said I came across as if I wasn’t human, only professional, it was monotonous, hard to read and too long etc.
This feedback is the opposite to what I have so far received from many others. Old Mark, before completing his life plan and at the start of his journey would have only concentrated on this negative feedback and would have discounted all the positive comments I had received. As such, if this feedback had of been given to the Mark at the start of this story, it would have had me crawl under the nearest stone, never write or speak in public again, but after the journey I have been on, I amazed myself by just brushing him off. I am pleased that he has an opinion and that it differs from mine and the rest of the feedback I have received. This way of thinking would have been unheard of only a few years ago and to me, this is a massive step in the right direction for restoring my own self-esteem and belief in myself.
Yes, I know I do write 10 words when maybe 2 will do. Yes, I know my punctuation could be a lot better and there will be spelling mistakes that have slipped through. Maybe I've used the wrong font or any other manner of issues that make my writing imperfect. Right or wrong, this is how I write. It’s me and from the heart with honesty taken from my now 30 years’ experience and for once, I am now 100% comfortable with this. My negative voice has now faded to a mere whisper, which is wonderful. I am OK that I am not perfect. I still get my writing proof-read as it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help from others that are more adept in any area for me, providing my message stays the same.
Reducing your negative voice and improving your self-esteem is not a quick easy exercise to do. It’s taken me 3 years to get where I am today and may well be something that I need to work on for the rest of my life.
OK, so where would I start? Here are a few of the positive things I have done over the last 3 years to reduce that negative voice to a manageable level:
• Agreeing with yourself that you want to change, and you are ready to put the effort in is the
• Start by journaling daily (google).
• Be honest with your partner about how you are feeling. They will support you.
• Be honest with your management team, even if that could make you feel vulnerable (Read
Patrick Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team).
• Join a peer group that operates in your business sector.
• Decide what good looks like for your business and personal life.
• Get a business coach or life coach (Recommendations/Google).
• Start reading business and personal improvement books (not get-rich-quick ones).
• Go to Ted Talks or watch Ted talks online.
• Business owners start delegating (google delegate and elevate).
• Use a system in your business, like Tractions EOS by Gino Wickman, Strat-Op by the
Patterson Centre or Gazelles by Verne Harnish. It doesn’t matter which one but chose one.
• Understand that it’s going to take a lot of effort and take a long time to break the habit.
• Be comfortable in removing your own mask and being yourself.
This is just a small list of some of the things you can do to kick start change. Some are easy and quick, some aren’t.
Why have I written this?
If you are feeling in any way like I was then hopefully from reading this or any of my other ramblings on www.crispleadership.com will help you. Maybe the above sounds totally alien to you. If so, that's great, I am envious, and I hope it stays that way! But, for those of you that recognise some of what I am saying, my hope is that you will understand that you are not alone, things can change. Many other business owners have been through similar issues and come out of the other side wiser and stronger for the experience and better prepared for the future. Even if we all believe at the time that negative things only ever happen to us, hopefully, you will see that the things that shape our lives can be positively realigned if you think differently and you are prepared to put the effort in to break the cycle.
Part of being a leader is that you should always lead by example, from the front and be comfortable with being vulnerable. Sharing my story here and sharing my life plan with my management team could have left me feeling very vulnerable and open to all sorts of ridicule. I took the chance though and after I had shared, this was shown to be quite the opposite to my first thoughts, as being vulnerable also brings you closer to your staff, empowers them more and makes them more willing to contribute to you and the business. They see that they are working for a person with the same misgivings and self-esteem issues as they have which builds trust and camaraderie.