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Business Owner as Teacher

December 21, 2018 (1,004 words)

Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime. While this is undeniably true, it’s still a lot easier to just hand over a cod filet and leave it at that, since teaching is damn hard work.

Teaching students in a classroom is a challenge. Teaching adults in a workplace setting is something else altogether.

Any individual who starts a business and nurses it along until it can stand on its own two feet has probably been endowed at birth with certain innate capabilities. Those would likely include an above-average level of native intelligence. With a hardy constitution impervious to illness, and a motor that never stops, so as to be industrious to an extreme. Along with a unique mindset that allows him to function as a natural-born problem solver.

The general population that forms the pool of said business owner’s potential co-workers and employees, on the other hand, may not be similarly blessed, at least not to the same extent. This deficiency leads many a novice business owner to expend an inordinate amount of time and energy being disappointed and upset with his co-workers and employees, because “they are not more like me.”

The key to overcoming this rookie frustration is to understand that you as the business owner are essentially a teacher, whether you like it or not.

… at first you resist the idea

At first you resist the idea. There is so much that needs doing, with the financial viability of the entire operation usually hanging in the balance. Every mistake, every misstep, could spell doom.

This sense of dread can prompt even a battle-tested boss to lose his patience and raise his voice. The floundering employees are usually not entirely sure what they did wrong, and are equally unsure of what they should be doing differently. Because they don’t have the benefit of the boss’s specific background, his years of industry experience. They are not able to read his mind.

If he’s lucky, the business owner will end up with a handful of employees who are a quick study. They do not need much follow-up or oversight, once the foundation has been properly set down. But there are only so many of those people to go around. As the staff grows, the more likely the boss’s co-workers will not have the same cognitive ability as the brothers and sisters he was raised with, or the neighborhood classmates he grew up around.

… but these other can still be potential contributors

At a certain point in the evolution of many types of businesses, the role of the owner changes from being point man driving sales, to more of a back-office operations manager, making sure the wheels turn as smoothly as possible.

Unless one has a stable of superstars, much of one’s expanded staff will require extensive coaching up, which of course is just another name for teaching.

The essence of teaching is being able to communicate with a target audience. Becoming an effective communicator requires empathy, among other things. The trick to not talking down to someone is quite simple: It’s learning to recognize and appreciate their inherent dignity as a human being, regardless of what they currently know, or what they can currently do for you.

The looking-straight-in-the-eye, rubbing-elbows-with type of teaching is obviously the most impactful, and is easier to pull off in a smaller organization. But large companies, even giant corporations, can accomplish the same feat, if they are willing to commit the necessary resources to seeing that the close interpersonal connection is maintained between each successive link in the managerial chain of command.

… when another motive comes into view

While a business has to be profitable in order to exist, making money is not the only thing a responsible business owner should be trying to accomplish. Once the rudimentary objective of profitability is achieved, it frees one to drill down a little deeper. Another motive comes into view, especially as one grows older.

For instance, instead of maintaining a payroll that keeps a tight lid on wages and benefits in order to enhance the bottom line, a responsible business owner will not only decipher how to make money, but also how to distribute the profits equitably among his co-workers and employees.

Instead of merely trying to provide the public with desirable goods and services, it becomes okay to focus on providing goods that are truly good, and services that truly serve.

Organizing and directing activity is the essence of artistry, and isn’t that what a business owner does every day? One might say the highest form of business artistry, if the reader will permit such an awkward formulation, is expressed via the initiative a trained staff brings to its daily functions. The natural ebb-and-flow of how employees interact with each other, and with the company’s clientele and suppliers, represent the fruit of a business owner’s instructional efforts.

… more than just an engine of material prosperity

The immediate goal of any good teacher is to make the world a better place, by respectfully and patiently seeking to increase the awareness and competency of the one being taught. When an owner embraces his role as teacher, business can be a boon to society, and not just as an engine for material prosperity.

Once a business owner has figured out how to keep the doors open and the lights on, there should be a more profound – dare I say altruistic – motivation behind the messy, stressful work he has taken on. Simply making some extra coin is a sorry excuse for getting up in the morning.

In the end, the best use of one’s innate capabilities is to create an environment in which one’s employees come to see themselves as co-entrepreneurs, responsible for and sharing in whatever meager success one’s lemonade-stand of a business is able to achieve.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
December 21, 2018

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