On the Shoulders of Giants: Overcoming Business Hardships

There are times when the weight of a workplace situation can seem overwhelming. Questions roll through your head over and over again with no readily available answers. How did I get to where I am? What, if anything, could I have done differently? Was there an opportunity I missed that would have led to a different situation today? And most importantly…what do I do now?

These and many other questions have been haunting many of us in business for the past couple of years. Things were going so well for most of us. Sales were up, clients were spending and expanding, our employees were engaged, and then the bottom dropped out. We saw the recession hit most companies we knew; suppliers, clients, competitors, even our own companies are not what they were "back then." We all seem to be suffering. But we can’t help but wonder, was there something different or more we could have done to lessen the impact on our companies?

The short answer is probably yes, there always is something different we could have and should have done. Would it have prevented us from feeling the impact? Maybe, but not completely. Most likely we could have softened the blow. And that is the benefit and luxury of hindsight. At the time we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And probably more importantly, we didn’t want to believe that what we were starting to experience was real. That sort of denial and optimism is human nature, and we are all (fortunately) subject to it. If we didn’t believe tomorrow could and would be better, some days it would be damn hard to get out of bed.

I have been thinking about these questions and experiences of the last couple of years a lot lately. My reflection has been personal to my business and businesses I am invested in, as well as my clients and friends businesses. An interesting awareness came to me as I thought this through. We are certainly not the first to travel this path. Many of our predecessors, men and women just like us who have traveled the journey of business in their lives, have seen much more difficult, more protracted, and more unpredictable economic cycles than we are now emerging from. Like us, they had never been in situations similar to the crisis they faced. And many of them survived and found a way to thrive and evolve from their challenge stronger and more resilient. They worked with fewer tools, less information, less mobility, less access to their clients and suppliers, less everything.

All of the preceding generations of business leaders, large and small, are historical giants in their own right. Whether you consider Henry Ford, Tom Watson, Sr., Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or the local grocery store owner/operator, a barber shop owner, or a garage mechanic, they all ran businesses and they all faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. And it is on their shoulders that we stand today as we face the challenges of our time.

In almost every decade there has been some business cycle hardship; the early 1900’s, the early 1920’s, the Great Depression in the 30’s and its carryover that lasted well into the early 40’s. The early 70’s, the 80’s (early and late), and the speed bump we hit in 1999 and the early part of the 2000’s following the dotcom bubble and 9/11. And history has shown that in all of these times many business people have stepped up, taken risk, adapted and adjusted their business models and built enduring success.

Every one of us stands on the shoulders of someone that came before us and built a great business or formed an industry and did it in both good times and tough times. For the bulk of my career to date I have been in the accounts receivable management business. My dad was in this business for four decades. I learned it from him and men and women of his generation. He and his peers built a foundation of integrating technology, creating legislation that legitimized and improved the industry, improved the relationships between vendors and clients, etc. The list of accomplishments goes on and on. The success I have experienced is significantly available because of the work my dad and his peers did well before my arrival on the scene.

And this is but one example. There is not a business person today who is not beholden to his or her predecessors. Friends of mine for example are cattle feeders, restaurateurs, bank owners, senior executives in global construction companies, insurance executives, large regional product distributors, retail shop owners, accountants, lawyers, doctors and dentists. In all cases, someone before them traveled a journey, navigated risk, overcame challenges, and did something that was seemingly impossible or at least "unconventional". And in all cases they, like me and you, stand on the foundation their predecessors laid, standing on these pioneer’s shoulders, giants all.

Today is our chance to build broad shoulders for those who follow us. We are their pioneers, their future giants. We know those who will follow us; they are in our companies today, impressing us with their drive and intelligence. They are in our colleges and universities learning things we weren’t exposed to when we were studying; they are learning our history as it is being written. And if we lay the foundation and broaden our shoulders through the challenges we successfully face, we will give them a solid platform upon which to build even greater success.

In the end, it is not really about the "what might have been questions", it is about the "what will be questions." The time has come for us to take up our mantle and strengthen the foundation of this great nation and economy for future generations. It is time to learn the lessons being offered to us by fate and circumstance and pass that wisdom on so others can travel farther, faster, more successfully than even we did. This attitude of building private enterprise foundations for future generations is at the core of this great country. And now we are the trustees of this legacy. Look forward, accept the challenge, find a way to make yourself and your company stronger, more resilient, and more capable of competing. Make your shoulders broad and become the giant upon whom the next generation will stand.