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March 01, 2012

Top Desk

Lessons I Have Learned


Click here to order the Direct Selling News issue in which this article appeared.

I have spent over 30 years in the direct selling industry, an industry I have grown to love because of the positive impact we have on people’s lives. During my career, I have worked for privately held and founder-led businesses, as well as publicly traded and venture capital-funded corporations. My experience has included startups, turnarounds and repositions. Over the years, I have compiled a list of lessons learned, and one of the best lessons I’ve learned is this: It is better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than to make them all yourself. Hopefully, some of my lessons will help you.

Lesson No. 1
Figure out when to be a student and when to be the teacher.

As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I’ve learned to ask more questions, to speak less and listen more. “What do you think?” has become one of my hallmark questions. Be alert to trends, common themes in your conversations. Understand the difference between a “vent” versus a real systemic problem. When the opportunity presents itself, try not to miss a teaching moment, whether to enhance someone’s understanding of the business, correct a misconception or provide mentorship.

Lesson No. 2
Principles/Values/Mantras do matter.

At DOVE CHOCOLATE DISCOVERIES™ we have a set of principles that guide us, values that keep us grounded and mantras that keep us focused. During our startup years when we were hiring new employees, we needed everyone to understand what drives a direct selling entrepreneurial business. Our management team created a set of mantras that hang on the walls and that are referred to frequently: Walk in the Chocolatier’s Shoes—be an advocate for the Chocolatier. We needed a common view that we exist to support the success of our distributors and our decisions need to be viewed from their perspective. Passion for Growth—act like an owner and embrace game-changing behavior. Our salesforce comprises micro-entrepreneurs, so our home office team needs to exhibit the same entrepreneurial behaviors as our field to drive our success. Discover Every Day. This mantra was created because as a young business we were trying lots of new things, and not every idea worked out as planned. We wanted everyone to get comfortable with the fact that some things we try may not deliver the results we anticipate. What is more important is that we learn what works, what doesn’t and why—and then figure out how to improve. Execute with Excellence—deliver quality in what we do and how we do it. As a young company, we needed to ensure that what we delivered—from our marketing materials to order fulfillment—was accurate and timely. We knew our reputation would be built based on our ability to execute consistently and well.

Lesson No. 3
Prioritize until it hurts.

Business is dynamic and changing. I’ve had the privilege to work with wonderful teams and there is never a shortage of ideas, but organizations cannot take on dozens of new initiatives, so it is important that you clearly define your top priorities. We measure ROI, ease of implementation, customer value and competitive leverage and then sequence the work. While these disciplines are necessary, sometimes great ideas hatched in a corporate meeting room don’t always play out when presented to the field. I’ve learned to develop trusted relationships with our top field leaders to reveal new ideas and concepts in advance of a national release. And many times their priority list can be quite different from corporate. We recently implemented a new operating system, and the corporate team believed the field needed more downline management information. We were working to create more reports, and then learned the field’s need was more about improving the way the information was presented. Their top priority was related to seeing the data laid out differently, not getting more of it.

Lesson No. 4
Develop a sense of when to delegate versus micromanage.

Sometimes I do sweat the small stuff—and I’m OK with that. For example, in a turnaround environment or a startup, the role requires significant involvement in the details because you are defining who you are as a company. In a high-growth situation, I’ve learned it’s best to get out of the way.

Lesson No. 5
Honestly assess where the business is.

As the leader of an organization, you need to be brutally honest with yourself and your team regarding the state of the business. Surround yourself with trusted advisors who can hold up a mirror and get you grounded in reality. Sometimes reality stings, but holding on to ideas that are not working or people who are not in the right roles, or deploying more resources against weak initiatives can erode momentum, and worse. Pick advisors who will be brutally honest with you, and who are vested in your success. At DOVE CHOCOLATE DISCOVERIES, we created an outside Board of Advisors comprising two direct selling industry executives, one serial entrepreneur, one venture capitalist and one organizational development specialist. It is a diverse board, representing different businesses and generations. I have enormous respect for each of them and their outside perspective has been invaluable.

Lesson No. 6
Don’t inhale your own fumes.

As a business enjoys success, resist the temptation to rest on your laurels. Your business needs to keep evolving, and as a leader, you have to help people get comfortable with being uncomfortable—pushing themselves to learn new skills and ask tough questions. Be open to change, don’t fear it. Remain humble. Remain hungry. And ask for help when you need it. Recognize that what works today may not work tomorrow, so be poised to move when new opportunities arise.