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Lessons from a Reluctant Entrepreneur

It's the holidays. You recognize the name Koeze. You know...those catalogs that come this time of year,Blog full of fancy glass jars with delicious-looking cashews, mixed nuts and candies for business gift giving. It's a business with $12 million in sales...certainly not peanuts.

December's issue of Inc. Magazine profiles the Koeze Co. and its CEO, Jeff Koeze. What a fascinating study in entrepreneurship and the art of learning to become a leader. When Koeze took the reins from his dad, Scott, 12 years ago, he knew almost nothing about running a business or being a leader. Talk about starting with a clean slate! And yet, Koeze has almost doubled sales, improved profit margins, introduced new products, modernized processes and systems, and enhanced the company's culture.

Admittedly it's been an overwhelming and trying -- but exhilarating -- 12-year ride for Koeze after taking up the reins from his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants father. The lessons he's learned are a handy guide, and an inspiring story, for any business leader. Two of those lessons are:

Perpetual learning is critical:

A former college professor, Koeze ignored his father's advice: "You can't learn to run a business by reading a book." Instead, as he'd done with all previous problems, Koeze "started with a stack of books 18 feet high." He sought advice everywhere...consultants, psychologists, clinical social workers, philosophy professors...and eventually, like Koeze himself, Koeze Co. became smarter. Employees have gone from being intellectually passive to intellectually curious. Three of the most important books from that 18-foot stack, according to Koeze are:

  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen (Penguin, 2001).
  • Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and other Bribes, by Alfie Kohn (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).
  • Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, by Bo Burlingham (Portfolio, 2005). 

Free-wheeling discussion is essential:

Koeze sees himself as "blunt and transparent" in his speech. That's how he wanted Koeze Co. to operate as well -- no hidden agendas, no sneak attacks in meetings. But it didn't. Not at the beginning. And Koeze realized that he had to change his approach in order for his employees to change their approach. He had assumed, as he'd done with his colleagues at the University of North Carolina, that the best argument wins and thus, he would be able to argue people into doing things his way. Not so with the production staff at Koeze.

Jeff began to share his thoughts. He became more patient. Which began to put people at ease. And one of his greatest insights: "He realized he confused people by verbally debating with himself the very issue on which he was about to give an order." Do you know anyone who has the habit of thinking out loud? And they do it with their direct reports, which confuse the heck out of people as they strive to discern from the monologue, "What am I supposed to do?" Koeze quit doing that and became comfortable with various forms of decision making, even simply giving orders.

Koeze, the professor, became a nut man, and over the course of a dozen years, not only became smarter himself, but now runs one of the smartest companies around.

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Comments

It's true, you can't learn just by reading and theory. You actually need to jump in there and DO IT. I think that's the hardest step right? The very first step into it can be frightening and it's what prevents most people from taking the plunge.

Here are the lessons that I have learned as an entrepreneur. http://www.junloayza.com/careers/the-lessons-learned-of-an-entrepreneur-answer-to-a-reader/ Let me know what you think.

Look forward to staying in touch.

- Jun Loayza

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