Can Entrepreneurs Listen and Learn?

An entrepreneurial mindset is a double-edged sword.  On the plus side, it gives you the courage of your convictions and the faith to plow ahead even when the path ahead seems perilous.  But that same single-minded determination can also blind you to very real problems, resulting in disasters of varying dimensions.

I found this out first-hand in the process of growing a PR firm from two to 30+ people over three decades.  Looking back, I realize that the process took longer than it should have for two reasons: (1) there was a lot I didn’t know when I started, and (2) I didn’t reach out to find answers from others soon enough.  When I finally did reach out, our growth rate ratcheted up.

Our first step was a little unorthodox, but significant.  We established a Board of Directors that included two minority shareholders and our attorney.  We were not required to do this, but we wanted to run our logic and decisions by experienced businessmen – one had been CEO of a NASDAQ company and the other was a substantial private equity investor.   This was initially only marginally successful because the board members didn’t really understand how PR worked.  Things improved markedly when we added the late Jean Schoonover to the Board as well as a seasoned marketing executive.  Jean, with her sister Barbara Hunter, had been the first women to run a U.S. PR firm, which they sold to Ogilvy.  Her counsel was invaluable for 15 years.

In 1994, I ventured to Al Croft’s Sedona Roundtable in Arizona, a two-day conclave of PR firm owners that examines issues that are top of mind to them.  It was wonderfully eye-opening because it helped me understand that: (1) there were actually things I knew that other people didn’t know, and that (2) many of our firm’s problems (e.g., lateral hires) were shared by many others.  A year later, the basis for our new bonus plan came out of the Sedona Roundtable.

That gave impetus to our most important strategic decision of the ‘90s – joining the Worldcom Public Relations Group in 1997.  Worldcom is the largest international network of independent PR firms, and our primary purpose in joining was to provide better customer service to several of our large, national and international clients.  Worldcom helped us achieve that goal, but really provided much, much more.  The ongoing peer-to-peer interaction and information exchange was priceless.  And, because the trust level is extraordinarily high, we heard some remarkable, gut-wrenching (and invaluable) presentations:

  • A case study presented by a firm CEO of how his firm had been embezzled
  • A case study by another firm leader of the legal and financial nightmare that followed his partner’s untimely death

Worldcom has a simple system that enables a firm to query all its partners on virtually any matter of professional interest.  Want to know partner policies for time off when employees adopt babies (as we once did)?  No problem.  Want information on whether an English word or its translation will be offensive overseas?  Ask the partners.

So, perhaps the lesson is that entrepreneurs can hear other opinions … as long as they come from other entrepreneurs.  What do you think?


To reach John:

Phone:  212.840.0444
LinkedIn:  John Bliss