You walk into a crowded networking room. There is light chatter as the participants start to introduce themselves. It seems like the people around are radiating confidence and success, boasting the usual achievements: “They had the best year ever;” “The second quarter is off to a promising start;” and “You know, I really have an excellent resource you should meet.” You feel like you can’t celebrate your own successes in this accomplished room. Your do-to list is a mile long; perhaps your first quarter undelivered. You don’t even have the time to pretend you can contribute to this group of business elite. You wonder if this level of influence is even worth the struggle. You can feel your lack of enthusiasm reflected in your posture. Tomorrow will be another grueling day.
Do you recognize yourself in
the description of the drained entrepreneur? At one time or another, every
business owner has compared the challenge of entrepreneurship to pushing a
boulder up a steep hill. Oftentimes we hear from exasperated business leaders,
“I feel like the effort from all this work will just roll right back over me”
or “I doubt I will ever make it to the top.” Owning a business is not for those
that cannot appreciate demanding work. Not only does leadership take a great
deal of courage, it requires limitless energy and strength in the face of
adversity. It means having the ability to drive a business forward, nurture the
capabilities of employees, cultivate the right relationships, and make key
critical decisions. Sometimes it even feels like riling up the strength to
swing your legs out of bed in the morning is impossible. Yet, despite the odds,
great leaders are the first to the table every morning, ready to push through
This common dilemma of
constant action is comparable to the ancient struggle of the Greek figure
Sisyphus. According to the myth, Sisyphus was once a clever and resourceful
trickster who was able to outwit the gods. However, Sisyphus’s success was
selfish in purpose and ultimately destructive to those who trusted him. Because
of his greed, he was sentenced to an eternal lifetime of pushing a boulder up a
steep hill. Once Sisyphus was able to reach the summit, the boulder would roll
back to the bottom and he would begin again—unable to ever reach his goal.
What a powerful metaphor for the challenges of modern entrepreneurship! Take for example the story of a young entrepreneur and their team that recently achieved funding for an educational resource product. Like all new ventures, they started with an idea that unified and energized a small group of talented technicians. They felt they were in the trenches as a team and their efforts seemed to be paying off. Together they had the right connections and were gaining serious momentum in their industry. Then, as they grew, the group needed a clear leader. With that came the pressures of responsibility. Suddenly, this person was ripped away from the work that was initially fulfilling and felt isolated in their responsibility to make decisions and delegate tasks to support the organization’s vision. They were filled with self-doubt and anxiety for the future; even when there were successes, nothing was celebrated. They just moved to the next goal. Feeling paralyzed by overwhelm can happen at any stage of a business and has many different nuances dependent of the strengths of an organization, leader, and team. However, whether you’re starting a new venture, growing it to the next level, or getting close to realizing your full vision of success, the boulder-on-a-slope concept perfectly captures the many facets of business growth and transformation.
Now, let’s dive deeper into
the different factors that can be affecting your personal progression up the
hill. First, let’s start with the boulder itself. The boulder represents your
product or service or, more specifically, the ease of sale of your product or
service. The harder it is to find, sell to, and fulfill the needs of your
prospective clients, the heavier your particular boulder will be. The boulder
is heavy on its own, but it’s also affected by external factors. The economy,
lifestyle trends, and even your own well-being effect the way your product can
be viewed by your target market.
Lightening The Load
Here’s the good news: The
weight lessens for businesses that take advantage of a clear need that exists
in the marketplace, either by exploiting a highly specialized niche or by
broadening its services to attract a wider audience.
As you consider your
company’s product and service offerings, ask yourself: Have we defined a truly
unique selling proposition? Is there an emotional need for prospective clients
to buy from us? Have we identified and articulated a clear return on investment
for their purchase? Have you ever analyzed potential threats to your
organization? The more your organization can answer “yes” to these questions,
the lighter the weight of the boulder you’re pushing up the hill.
Don’t Push Alone
Now, let’s take a look at the
act of pushing the rock. We all know it’s hard to build and sustain a business
by yourself. As you build a team (real or virtual) to support your efforts,
these additional hands can be used to push or, at the very least, support
your back as you shoulder most of the weight. You’ll quickly notice that the
pushing gets easier as your team gets stronger.
The greatest benefit of a
team—whether employees, partners, or like-minded collaborators—is the
additional support it offers. These hands (in reality, diverse skill sets)
complement one another and help move your business forward.
Good managers will have their
hands securely on your back. Dedicated employees will help push the boulder
forward. Strong collaboration, leading to greater commitment and buy-in among
your team, will always make the pushing go more smoothly.
When you take your eye off
the ball (or your hands off the boulder), committed team members will fulfill
their roles and help you maintain forward momentum. The standards and
expectations you’ve established for your organization will support the push
forward. Let’s not forget about our previously mentioned exhausted
entrepreneur, struggling to accept the reality of their leadership role. When
you become the key point of action within an organization you must distance
yourself from the technical aspects of your work and start to manage the skills
of those around you. You lose the day-to-day pulse and really must start to
trust the ability of your team. Cultivating that trust is a continual process,
just as important as supporting technical development. In this case, the
entrepreneur needed to spend more time away from the hub of their production
and use the team’s strengths to support their own endeavors, all the while
giving clear feedback on top priority tasks and identifying areas that need improvement.
To make a strong team a
reality, a leader must invest a substantial amount of time building capacity
and capability in an individual. Building capacity means spending your own
valuable time in order to deliberately grow and manage talent in top
performers. Getting them ready to take on more of the boulder and freeing
yourself up for more strategic and growth focused work.
Cutting Down On Resistance
Unfortunately, the laws of
nature dictate that certain factors will always be present to push against the
boulder. In business, these are most commonly people issues: negative
attitudes, partners who are not communicating well (or at all), misguided
management, or employees whose roles and responsibilities have not been clearly
Resistance can also come from
a misalignment of your business values and vision. Consider if these factors
are interfering with your organization’s progress up the hill:
Not operating in alignment with the clearly
stated values that represent your organizational culture.
Not having a unified vision that has been
articulated to all levels of the company.
If your company’s vision is
not clear to your team, or if there are multiple or contradictory visions
floating around, you’re adding unnecessary resistance to your boulder.
Lose the extra baggage by re-examining your short- and long-term objectives;
then outline specific action steps to start moving toward them.
Reducing The Slope
Once we’ve identified ways to
reduce the weight of the boulder, added helping hands, and cut down on needless
resistance, it’s time to shift our focus to the slope of the hill itself.
In theory, the hill will
naturally level out or even start to slope downward as a business matures and
builds a satisfied client base. These situations—from enjoying the ride to
steering clear of the cliff—present their own equally vexing challenges.
For the moment, let’s concentrate on ways to reduce the slope of your hill. Opportunities exist in nearly every area of your business, from a clear positioning statement, a well-trained sales team, and a fully developed marketing strategy to strong vendor relationships, supportive hiring policies, and up-to-date technology. As diverse as they seem, these factors all contribute to making your company run like a well-oiled machine and cut down on the incline accordingly.
1. Stop blaming others. Take the time to look in the mirror and note the
actions and behaviors that you embody and how they affect how others react. This
is beyond placing the blame on others and looking at how to “fix” them; it’s
rooted in determining how to motivate and lead other individuals towards
greater success individually and as part of the larger team.
Are you aware of
the language and tone you use?
Do you attempt to
approach each situation without judgment?
2. Have more coaching conversations. Before having meaningful and impactful conversations,
determine whether it could be an opportunity to teach, mentor, or coach the
other individual for the purpose of his or her growth.
How often do you
have coaching conversations?
Are you open to
being the learner in these conversations?
3. Revisit your strengths, passions, and values. Integral to your success is the intersection of your
values, passions, and strengths, but staying on path requires constant guidance
and recalibration. As a leader, it is your responsibility to keep sight of your
own intersection as well as those of your team members and employees.
Do you know the
values, passions, and strengths of your team members? Are you helping them
reach their intersection?
What can you do
to act more in line with your values, passions, and strengths in order to
realize your maximum potential?
4. Identify the missing conversations and have them. Missing conversations linger around like the
800-pound gorilla, creating a tense atmosphere and promoting unspoken
assumptions instead of working through the facts.
Who are the
people you’re avoiding? Why?
need to be reestablished? What standards need to be re-clarified?
What are you
accepting that is no longer acceptable?
5. Become aware of your triggers and manage them. We all have triggers that cause us to react out of
character (either through brash action or avoiding the situation entirely:
fight or flight).
What are your
Do you understand
and manage against others’ triggers?
6. Build a realistic “to-do” list. Start each day by prioritizing your most critical
tasks: What must get done today without exception? Some days the critical list
may be two or three items, while other days it might be more. Remember: It’s
not about having enough time, it’s about setting priorities.
How would it feel
to accomplish everything (or most everything) on your list each day?
What criteria do
you use to determine your priorities?
7. Delegate authority. We expand our team in order to increase our capacity
and strengthen our offering, but often we limit the team by not giving them the
authority and autonomy to make critical decisions. Give your team the “room”
they need to accomplish the goals you set out together.
have you had where you weren’t able to make the critical decision where you
What level of
authority can you comfortably delegate?
8. Take time to close the agreement loop. After a conversation laying out next steps, it’s
important to recap the decisions and action steps to create a clear set of
requests and promises (i.e., answering the question: Who will do what by
Are you getting
the proper promise to your request?
Does the other
party have all the pieces of the agreement loop? Do they have access to the
resources they need?
9. Exercise and start your day with a healthy
breakfast. All studies have shown
that those who eat a healthy and balanced breakfast work better, have increased
focus, and have greater clarity. They don’t suffer from mid-morning exhaustion.
Same is true for those who regularly exercise.
What did you have
for breakfast this morning? Is this typical?
How often do you
get regimented exercise?
10. Think solutions! Solutions are hard to come by if you’re stuck doting on “How did we
get here?” Focusing on alternative ways
to solve the problem is much more productive and worthwhile and will prove to
be the quicker route to resolution.
What do you do to
pull yourself out from blaming others and getting stuck in the problem?
What could you do
to help others shift their mindset to focus on developing possible solutions?
As you reflect where your
business stands on the hill to success, and the weight of the boulder you’re
currently supporting, recognize that it’s all part of the normal evolution
of every business journey. The incline may become more or less taxing, the
boulder’s weight more or less burdensome, but the challenges they represent
will always exist in one form or another. It’s how and with whom you tackle
them that makes all the difference.
Richard Magid founded Soundboard Consulting Group in 2000 to support business leaders in building more productive and profitable companies through the ideals of collaborative leadership. With more than 25,000 hours of coaching experience, Richard is trained in advanced facilitation, conflict resolution, and executive coaching. His strategic insights come from starting four companies and consulting with more than 250 businesses throughout the last 36 years.