From the December 2002 issue of Startups

All too often, well-meaning family, friends and business associates give advice--some good, some bad--based on their view of what's right or wrong and fail to understand that every company has a unique culture that works for it. When faced with this situation, what's a business owner to do?

I just returned from an association meeting in Florida. There were about 50 small-business owners in attendance; some in business for more than 30 years and others but a few months. As you might imagine, these business owners compete on a regular basis, yet the association meetings give them a chance to mingle and discuss common problems. This particular meeting was like many others I've attended: A few vendors made sales pitches, some of the members presented new equipment they had developed and were making available to others who might be interested, and one member gave a presentation of a unique service his company offered.

But what really got my attention--it does every time--was their round table discussion. Time is set aside at every meeting for members to throw out the problems they're having to see if another member has solved, or at least minimized, a similar situation. And so the members, in this free-flowing environment, discussed such day-to-day issues as finding and hiring good employees, attracting new customers, software development and delays, and so on.

One member in particular sought leadership advice on a problem she faced with a few employees. Apparently, these employees travel quite a bit, in small crews of four or five people. She travels with every crew she can--like all too many entrepreneurs, she does the work that could be performed by an hourly employee, missing opportunities to grow her business. In any case, her problem was with a couple of employees who drink after work. Now, these are middle-aged people, and this entrepreneur didn't want them having more than a drink or two at dinner, and none later in the evening.

Of course, the members had a variety of opinions and suggestions. Some thought she was absolutely right and was justified in not allowing them to work the next morning's job. Others called her "mommy" and let her know they didn't think it was any of her business, as long as the employees did a good job. There were a few members who strayed from the drinking issue and addressed the more important matter: Your company will never grow if you find it necessary to be at every job.

The entrepreneur interacted with the members who offered advice. And while she remained adamant about the drinking issue, she appreciated the loss of new business she might be suffering by being on the road so much. When all is said and done, she will probably continue to nag the drinkers. But, she may spend less time on the road. And within the limits of the law, it's important that she run her business her way. Because the one thing the members never directly touched on was the "company culture" at her place of business.

I recall a phone conversation I had with my mother after I had been in business for about eight years. We were talking about company profits in general, and then she asked if I was making a 50 percent profit. When I told her it was closer to 8 percent, she told me that perhaps I shouldn't be in business if that was all I was making. Like many friends, mom was trying to be helpful. Instead, I was a bit aggravated and flabbergasted to realize there might be many like my mother who thought companies were just rolling in profits. But at least I knew I had to take mom's future business advice with a lot of caution.

That's true for all advice we get--whether it's free or even if we pay for it: Does it make sense, and does it fit in with what we want from our companies? After all, at the end of the day, if the owner is stressed, so, too, will be the employees. In that environment, nothing good gets done.


Rod Walsh and Dan Carrison are the founding partners of Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California and the authors of Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way