Very few things are certain in entrepreneurship. Regardless of how much your preparation or previous experience, obstacles and events you never considered are bound to creep up. Things will not go as planned. And while that does not mean a lack of planning is okay, it does mean that you need one critical leadership trait to survive and thrive -- not just in entrepreneurship, but in all you do.
But, before I get to that, I have a story for you.
Several years ago, my brother Adam and I met an entrepreneur who had been somewhat of a strip mall king in a certain part of the U.S. He shared his story with us one afternoon, and we were amazed at the turn of events he had experienced in the previous few years. He had owned about 60 strip malls and, up until 2006, had been expanding pretty quickly.
He explained that he had put a hold on expansion because he was one of few people at that time who saw the looming real estate collapse that was about to hit. Not only did he see it coming, but he was actually very excited about it. He considered it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he spent considerable time and money preparing to capitalize on the downturn. He liquidated much of his stock portfolio, downsized his company and even sold several properties while he knew he could get top dollar -- all in preparation for a strip mall buying spree once the time was right.
When the crash finally hit, about six months later than he originally predicted, he was shocked when it didn't go as he had hoped. In his area of the country, commercial real estate faired better than in most areas, and the amazing deals he expected to see just weren't there. He was able to close some bargain properties, but his "spree" fizzled pretty quickly, and he was stuck with liquid capital that needed a home -- and one that offered the kind of return he had originally planned for.
With no experience in residential real estate, but knowing there were plenty of fire sales going on in that sector, he set out to change his entire approach, focusing on buying single family houses. He ended up purchasing nearly 2,500 houses (mostly from the banks), and in many cases, was able to rent them back to the original owners, allowing people to stay in a house they would otherwise have lost.
While still real estate-related, this new venture was a far cry from the strip mall business. But, as residential property values have recovered, you can imagine the return he's enjoyed from his investments. Today, his portfolio is diversified among commercial and residential, and he's waiting for the next once-in-a-lifetime scenario to come along.
The one thing
What was it that this entrepreneur had -- and I would argue every successful entrepreneur has -- that allowed him to be ultra-successful, even when things didn't go as planned? It's flexibility. Having the ability and willingness to pivot when something gets in your way is crucial to your success.
There is not a single thriving business that looks exactly like its founder envisioned it when he or she started out. Mark Zuckerberg had no idea Facebook would be what it is today and had no way of knowing the giant obstacles he'd encounter along the way. The same goes for any successful enterprise. And the one thing that the leaders of those enterprises had to have had is flexibility.
Just as important as being flexible is knowing when to pivot (or "flex"). Someone who pivots at the first sign of change ends up being all over the place -- unfocused and scattered. The key is to know when flexibility is necessary to stay on a course to success.
One great indicator that it's time to pivot is when you feel like giving up. When a challenge presents itself that's so daunting that you consider throwing in the towel, think flexibility instead. How can you change direction -- maybe toward something you never even considered -- to stay in the game?
Don't be so married to your ideas that you must either rigidly pursue them or give them up completely. Incorporate flexibility into your life in a smart way, and you'll be a leader in all you do.