I am sure most business owners have been through some pretty scary times at one point or another. There always seems to be some peril lurking around the corner, like losing a key employee, two bad quarters in a row, someone getting badly hurt on the job, or a cash crunch just to name a few.
I can remember a certain situation like it was yesterday. It was a late October Saturday night and my wife just went to bed. I was alone by the fire pit trying to watch Penn State play Michigan in one of the infamous “White Out” games. Living about a mile away from Beaver Stadium, I had the volume off because I could actually hear the cheers in my backyard.
However, on this night I couldn’t concentrate on the game and found myself staring at my children through the sliding glass kitchen doors. They were hanging out with their friends in the kitchen; innocently eating, laughing, and having a great time…not knowing the impending doom I was expecting in the coming weeks. I sat there staring in disbelief at where I was in my life and trying to figure how the heck I got here in the first place.
It was 2017 and I was on the brink of bankruptcy and things were spiraling out of control. The business had no money in the bank, I had to borrow $125,000 from my retirement account just to make payroll. I was saddled with $2.5 million of debt from buying out a partner who betrayed me. There was no more wiggle room with the line of credit. If that wasn’t enough, we were dealing with the soul crushing despair of a drug-addicted son about to go to jail. To say the weight of the world was on my shoulders would be an understatement.
As I watched my kids…I had a stream of scattered thoughts racing through my mind…playing on what felt like an endless loop with no off button to be found…anywhere!
I’m about to lose everything.
My children are about to be homeless.
What does this mean for their futures?
How about our employees and their families?
What will they think of me?
I failed them. I failed them. I failed them.
This was a far cry from where I had been just two years earlier; living a life most people would consider charmed. Back in 2015, I was debt free, married for 20 years to my wife and best friend with a relatively successful business consisting of five locations. My four children were healthy, we went on yearly mission trips to Guatemala, and a couple of vacations each year. Topping it all off was watching my Penn State Wrestling team become a juggernaut by winning NCAA titles year after year. Back then, life was good!
That following Monday after the White Out game, I had a big project that needed to get done that week. It was a make-or-break project at a make-or-break time. If I didn’t get it done, we were probably going to lose EVERYTHING. Everything I’ve worked my entire adult life for. I kept ruminating on how this could happen as I worked hard, treated people fairly, and played by the rules the entire time.
And that’s when I got the call that would forever change my life. It was from a former employee (let’s call him Dan) that I let go due to underperformance about a year earlier. I had kept in touch with Dan because he is a super nice guy that just needed some help. He was going through some very tough times himself. Divorce, bankruptcy, depression etc.
I could tell something was off when I answered. Dan called me to thank me for being kind to him and listening to his troubles even though he knows how busy I am. He was calling to say goodbye before he killed himself at the park.
It was one of those Holy crap moments!
I was in panic mode. What should I do? I have never been in this spot before. I already had the weight of the world on my shoulders with my son and facing failure and bankruptcy, but having someone’s life in my hands was orders of magnitudes more than I was ready for.
I remember praying and asking Jesus’ guidance on what I should do. Risk losing the business and everything I worked for…or help a friend?
I quickly met with my wife about what was going on and shared with her my concerns that if I do not get this project done, we may lose everything. But, if I don’t go to Dan, he may end up killing himself. And that is when my wife calmly looked me in the eyes with conviction and asked me a simple question: “What is your purpose”?
I’m sure you can imagine a scene or two from a movie or TV show that shows the hysterical character getting a slap in the face to jolt them into calming down. That simple question coupled with my wife’s resolute calm was just the jolt I needed to calm me down and snap me into action.
As you probably guessed; I went to get Dan and spent the better part of the week counseling him and helping him get the professional help he needed; help I could not possibly provide for him.
Here we are, more than five years later and we are a far cry from the gloom and doom I was anticipating back then. We now have seven locations and are achieving record sales and earnings year after year, with a culture growing closer to what I envisioned. And the best part of it is, I am basically out of the day-to-day operations of the business.
That event changed the course of my life and my business. Looking back on it, I realized I was trying to do everything and fix everything. I was so worried about the numbers that I lost sight of the people. I lost sight of my purpose. I was so stressed that my interactions with people put them on edge as I was questioning everything they were doing. I was in a constant state of reacting to a problem instead of training and empowering others to avoid the problems in the first place.
I got to a place where I admitted my way wasn’t working. And that I would rather fail believing, trusting, and living my purpose of restoring people and their dreams than the way I was operating. I remember praying “Lord, if I am going to fail, let me fail as fast as possible so I can go do what you want me to do”.
From that point on, I applied two simple words that are the basic tenets of most business books… and the Bible. Those two words?
In the Bible, Christians are taught to Be Not Afraid and to let go. To trust in God that he will provide. That sounds warm and fuzzy when you are sitting in a church pew while living a charmed life.
I realize there are lots of people reading this who may not be believers and just might think I am a few cards shy of a full deck. To be honest, if I did not live through it, I would probably think the same because as entrepreneurs, most of us are not wired to give up control and let go. We are used to being the one to solve the problems and be the guy with all the answers. I chuckle to myself even as I type this because it was as much a crock then as it is now.
So, let me point to the parallels we get from the Bible and most of the leadership books out there.
- Know your purpose. Not what you think others might want it to be…But what it really is.
- Provide clarity for each person and how they impact others.
- Make sure everyone knows what is expected of them.
- Provide regular feedback by offering praise and recognition when it’s due, as well as constructive feedback.
- Hold them responsible for their actions.
- Let Go…. Stop trying to do everything yourself. You will unshackle your people and yourself.
By the way, every time I have shared that story, I am always asked what the make-or-break project was. And the truth of the matter is… I don’t remember. So that goes to show you, it is rarely as bad as we make it out to be.
So…If you have gone through something akin to this, congrats, you are still here. And if you haven’t, Be Not Afraid, you can get through it too if you follow the outline above.