Ego and the Small Business

Here’s a paradox:

It is ego that often launches a successful new business, realising the vision of a single individual or small group and turning into an energetic, fast growth enterprise.

It is also ego that can kill off a struggling business, stopping it from changing, recovering and redefining itself.

Without the strong will, focus and determination of a person (or group of people), with a very clear picture of the product or service at the heart of their new business, without a strong passion at the heart of the person starting a new project or realising an idea, that enterprise rarely succeeds.

The problem is that not all good ideas succeed in the long run. Two thirds of UK businesses will not survive ten years and about a third won’t make it beyond eighteen months. And when things start to go wrong, the founder’s ego can turn into a kind of disease for the enterprise. The founder refuses to let go of their belief that, having successfully set up this venture, they are the only person who knows what it needs to survive. The founder becomes a kind of ghost, haunting the future of the business with tired old thinking.

Even as the business or project starts to decline, run out of cash, lose customers and clients, the founder refuses to hear advice from others, heeds no warnings, listens to no well intentioned questions or challenges, placing faith in their own “founder’s ego” to sort things out.

It can be very hard to realise and accept that you yourself are now part of the problem, not the solution. Even as the environment around you is changing, you are trapped in a much smaller world, the world of your own thinking, with the same thoughts and recipes, actions and solutions recycling around, some of which may well have started and hastened the current decline.

Ego like this will kill the venture. Openness, listening and humility may just give it a chance.

Listen. You might not be the person who knows the solution to this problem. You might actually be making it worse.

You might be sulking and angry with yourself for the mess you are in and have become fixated on you being the only one who can or should solve things. You may have just started behaving like a poltergeist in your own house. The paradox of ego is that, in the form of egoism, it can both kill or cure. It can launch and also bring crashing down. The inventor is not necessarily always the innovator. The dreamer is not necessarily the finisher. Being open to call for help requires the ego to calm and allow what needs to be done to speak louder than “what I think”.

When we hit rock bottom, many of us final realise that we actually pushed ourselves into the abyss. It is an opportunity to become humble. Often the best insights into ourselves are the ones we gained finally when we feel humble. We no longer have all the answers. It is time to start inquiring, instead of advocating. To listen instead of doing all the speaking. Insights can come to us from other people who see us more clearly who, perhaps, warned us and we ignored the warnings.

And there is a danger here. We then decide to be open and humble with all the same fiery ego that got us into this mess into the first place. You can’t force humbleness. It tends to elude you when you do that and you can end up in an even bigger mess.

It is better when it is gentle. It is more successful when you are patient and your ego calms a bit.

How do we turn around the disaster?

We listen more. We are gently patient. We are open to others’ viewpoints. We listen without judgement. We don’t force the turnaround. If the situation is urgent then we try to form a group and get different perspectives. We invite rather than demand. We are prepared to admit our mistakes, to learn from them. We seek others’ ideas for actions. We look to be more objective, basing decisions on evidence, not only ego-based instincts. We become open to the idea we may be wrong, that we need more knowledge and skills.

The ego will still be there, because all human beings have an ego that forms who they are. But we can put it to the service of something bigger, a purpose for the business that isn’t just to be slave to the founder vision, but also to what is possible, practical and purposeful.

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