15 Life Lessons Learned from 15 Years of Business Development

From Ground Zero to Graceful Leadership: What I have learned as Founder of PeopleSense Consulting

Ash covers the ground near the area known as Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.

Ash covers the ground near the area known as Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.

September 2016 marks the 15th anniversary of PeopleSense Consulting. My first day “on the job” was September 10, 2001. I sat in the small bedroom sparsely outfitted as my home office, filled with excitement and promise for my new start. The next morning, with the news on in the background, the world changed. 9/11 shattered lives and introduced fear for our global safety and security. Here I was, launching a new business, at one of the most vulnerable times imaginable.

There was no going back in my mind. I had chosen a path that I felt was right for me, and despite the conditions that no one could have predicted, I never doubted that this was perfect for me. Building a business was unfamiliar territory to me, but I knew that the work itself was tailor-made for my skills and interests. I just needed to find clients to work with!

From cold calls to social media

I spent countless hours on the phone making cold calls, recording each one meticulously to track my results (my goal was five to eight in-person appointments every week and I needed to make 50 calls where I actually talked to someone to hit that target, which mostly I did).

I joined the local Chamber of Commerce (a great decision) and attended other networking events to establish myself. Eventually, clients came from word of mouth and referrals, a welcome change from having that phone attached to my ear! Creating new relationships now happens on social media platforms; methods and venues continue to evolve. More of my consulting is done via phone than in-person and online resources for learning presents a whole new opportunity for connection.

Lots of changes, except one

So many things have changed, including technology, marketing, and product offerings. But one thing has remained constant. Never has a day gone by with any regrets on my choice to begin my own business, even though things have not always gone smoothly.

I am eternally grateful for the many mentors, colleagues, clients, friends, and family who are just as much a part of this achievement as I am. All of you have not only shaped my business, but also my life.  As I look back on these 15 years, I reflect on some of the key lessons that have been integral to me. These tips are a reflection of what I’ve learned, experienced, and appreciated throughout my journey thus far.

  1. Pursue your dreams with conviction. When I decided to start my own business, most people were 100% behind me. Yet there were a few people who had strong reservations and tried to direct me elsewhere. I know they had my best interests at heart. They wanted to help but were coming from their own perspective, not mine.Those opinions were important for me to consider, and I appreciated their candor. But in the end, I needed to heed my own advice, no matter the outcome. Even if something doesn’t pan out the way you wanted, it doesn’t mean that was the wrong choice. Every experience, whether good or not-so-good, shapes your future direction, helping you see things more clearly. Let the opinions of others inform you rather than distract you from your dreams.
  1. Be sure to have a long-term plan. This list of 15 lessons are ones I believe are critical, but I didn’t say that I did them all well! I’d like to tell you that I always had a concrete strategic vision for my company, but I didn’t. I admit it, my tendency is to jump in and do the immediate ‘to-do’s’ on my list rather than working a long-range business plan.In hindsight, it’s clear that in those periods of time when I focused on the big picture, I moved forward easily and more successfully. Even when I didn’t accomplish exactly what I hoped, having a plan absolutely made a difference because it led me to something else bigger and better than I had ever envisioned. For example, when I decided to launch my online Learning Resource Center, I had a vision for it. That larger view helped inform my day-to-day decisions on the direction to take and how to allocate time. My learning curve about eLearning has been steep and there has been hard work involved, but it’s simply one of the best things I’ve done to create a sustainable business model for my future.
  1. Set your rules and stick with them. When you start a business, you have full autonomy. You have the freedom to do anything you want. Anything. And that can be a problem! Not having any structure can really get you in trouble! Establishing clear guidelines makes sense whether you are running a business, organizing your life, training a dog, or parenting. When I am crystal clear about my own pricing policy or establish a rule that Grace cannot sleep in our bed at night, it helps me – and anyone else that the decision impacts – be very aware about what I want and need.The absence of key boundaries causes confusion, misunderstandings, and frustration. Another advantage of having rules in place is helping you and others remain compliant when it is challenged. From time to time, Grace will lobby to regain a place in bed at night, but it’s not difficult for me to enforce the rule, even though my immediate tendency is to say, “Oh, just this once….” (and we all know where that leads!).  Having rules might seem like a no-brainer tip, and it certainly is not hard to see the benefits. But for someone (like me) who is prone to “go with the flow,” the importance of this is not understated.
  1. Change the rules if you need to! I’m not going back on my last tip, but not all rules are completely effective in 100% of situations. I believe it’s critical to have guidelines for any important endeavor, especially large and/or complex ones. But you need to stay flexible and realize when an exception can (and should be) made. Whether running a business or managing a group of people, there are unusual situations where nuances exist and should be taken into consideration for the best outcomes.Here’s one I face often: from time to time, clients aren’t able (or don’t) complete an assessment by the deadline we’ve agreed upon. The deadline is in place to allow me adequate time to prepare for our meeting, but I’ve also built in time for other projects along the way. As much as I want to have those assignments completed, it behooves me to have flexibility, knowing that busy people have many conflicting priorities. Have your rules in place, but make sure you adjust when situations warrant it. In contrast, you should also have a good reason to hold firm to any rule you’ve set when that feels like the right thing to do.
  1. Failure does not equate to failing. Along the way of this 15-year journey, I’ve had my share of failures. Countless cold calls I made attempting to secure an appointment were not accepted, numerous sales presentations did not yield new clients, and some workshops had dismal registration. I’m not proud of these situations; it created self-doubt and a feeling of insecurity about the quality of my work and skills.Within organizations, it is especially hard to be open about mistakes, errors or lackluster results; protecting your status as competent is jeopardized when you say you’ve fallen short on some assignment. But in those moments of “failure,” it is important to reflect and learn, and we can only do that if we face the situation. Business leaders and co-workers can help by creating a culture that accepts failure. Always remember that a single incident of failure does not equate to failing. Learning from our mistakes will move you towards greater success. The more we all embrace that, the better for everyone.
  1. Grace has always loved basking in a sunbeam. Today's workplace culture places a higher priority on a constant state of motion, keeping busy, answering the next call or responding to the next email. But taking a few moments out of each day to do the thing you enjoy the most will make you more productive in the long run. What is your sunbeam? Animals are important teachers. This was a lesson best taught to me by Grace. When she came to live with me in June of 2005, I almost immediately started to see the parallels in our relationship and the ones that I witnessed through my work. Her lack of confidence was eerily similar to employees feeling insecure in their jobs or when unsupported by a manager. Like many supervisors, I was a key influencer in the way Grace “performed,” and unknowingly, I was causing many issues for Grace. Once I understood how to manage our relationship better (thanks in large part to a talented a veterinarian who specialized in these issues), her behaviors changed for the better.Watching and learning from my own interactions with Grace helped inform me about how to be more effective and compassionate with others, especially when they needed something different out of me other than what I was offering (even with my best intentions). This continues to be an evolving process and Grace’s unwavering persistence to teach me continues to hone my awareness every day.
  1. Believe in yourself and others will, too. This saying came to me by way of a fortune cookie after a Chinese take-out dinner one night years ago, but I still have it on my desk as a reminder to buoy me, especially when I hit a rough spot. Self-doubt has a way of undermining good work whenever it arrives in our thoughts.While not advocating arrogance, having simple confidence in yourself is very healthy. In my early years of business, I can distinctly recall two clients saying to me, “I’m not sure these assessments will work, but I can see that you do.” When I heard those words, it startled me because I didn’t realize how others were viewing that assurance, but I smiled, because I knew it was accurate. When these folks tapped into my belief, it allowed them to move forward with the project and see results first-hand. Otherwise, they may have not have pursued the initiative, and I was thrilled for their success.
  1. Rock-of-HeartsFind the work you love. I never had any grand scheme to have my own consulting practice. But when I saw the opportunity to use a world-class assessment as a means to do what I really loved (help managers and employees have respectful and productive workplace relationships), I knew immediately it was right.If you’re struggling with your current profession, I highly recommend you start the process of finding the work you love. It can take planning, courage, and sometimes a little luck, but the choice is always in your hands.  This journey has not always been easy, but it’s been fulfilling and rewarding with not one regret. Life is too short for anything else.
  1. Take a Break to RejuvenateTake a break to rejuvenate. Grace is a constant reminder of this important lesson in productivity. It may seem counterintuitive: How can you fit in time to “goof off” when you know you’re already struggling to get through the piles of work on your desk? But Grace doesn’t care how urgent and long my list is; she reminds me that it is equally important to step away. Whether taking a short or a long walk, or simply sitting in a sunbeam with quiet thoughts, pausing renews and refreshes your body and your brain. Returning anew helps open up creative angles and energy to get through even troubling items on that ‘to-do’ list!
  1. dodger-with-joy-noteSpeak your truth but do it with grace. This particular lesson is one that I value the most, perhaps because I see it so rarely, and I struggle with it myself. I’m naturally a supportive person, so it can seem that delivering a tough message is hostile. Offering your opinion can be uncomfortable, especially when you are delivering it to someone whose views differs from your own. However, silence can be construed as agreement, or worse—not having the courage to stand up for your beliefs.One of the most common complaints I hear from employees out their manager is a lack of honest feedback. They tell me that the real discussions happen behind closed doors and not with the appropriate players hearing the message. That why I try hard to deliver an honest statement with respect and compassion. To me, it’s one of the most important skills of effective communication and is desperately needed in our organizations and personal lives.
  1. Bring curiosity into conflict. As noted in the last tip, having differences in opinion can be so uncomfortable that we avoid it. The thought of addressing the conflict is distasteful. However, one of the best ways to move through conflict and reduce the stress is to stop trying to force your own view as the primary objective. Instead, go into the conversation with curiosity about what you’re missing. Ask yourself: What are reasons why this person feels the way they do?Learning another person’s perspective can help you gain appreciation for another way, even if you don’t agree with it. When you are curious, you automatically shift from a judgmental mindset to one of respect. And that helps you speak your truth with grace!
  1. Give to others as much as you can. Whether walking dogs at our local Humane Society or offering professional services to a favorite non-profit, I always find that I benefit from time spent volunteering in service of others. Giving back gives me a way to show gratitude for the many people who have helped me along this journey.Another enormous benefit of volunteer work is the comradery and connections you make. Nearly every volunteering role I’ve undertaken has been fun! It also provides a new perspective. It’s easy to get bogged down in your own problems, and while you shouldn’t dismiss any rough spot you’re dealing with, offering support makes you realize that you are not alone. Do whatever you can to be of service to others. Even a small contribution of your time, talents, or treasure makes a huge difference in the lives of everyone, including your own.
  1. Simplify. There are lots of times when a particular task feels overwhelming to me. It could be writing a blog post where the words refuse to come easily or I feel paralyzed by the number of particular calls or emails I need to get to. At those moments, it is most helpful to me to pause and create a major shift in my mindset or my physical space. It can be as simple as saying to myself: “This doesn’t have to be that hard.” Just creating a new attitude frees up stress that I have put on myself.Another way I get out of my own way is to give myself a quick deadline. Talking to myself, I’ll say, “I bet you can get a lot done in the next 15 minutes.” I’m not trying to finish, just move it forward. On the other hand, sometimes it’s best to stop and walk away. Getting some fresh air and moving around does wonders to open up a new perspective. And when things are truly too difficult, well, that’s when the next tip comes into play!
  2. Ask for help when you need it. For many years, I tried to do everything myself. Finances played a part in those decisions (trying to be frugal, penny-wise and pound-foolish!), but I also felt that I could handle certain things like graphics or marketing expertise. More recently, I tried my hand at video editing. All of this was a great learning experience, but better outcomes result when you get a professional involved!Focus on the things you do well, and enlist the skills and experience of those when you don’t have the expertise or the time. This advice applies to everyone, no matter what your position you hold. When you hit a tough spot, ask for ideas and approaches that others have tried. You’ll always benefit from the variety of talent that surrounds you, and you will quickly see how eager people are to help you.
  1. Celebrate! This is advice that I frequently offer to my clients when they’ve hit a milestone. Recognizing even baby steps a person achieves towards a goal is important. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so know that major efforts take time. Yet, I haven’t always followed through on that advice in my own business, so after 15 years, I have some catching up to do!These occasions don’t have to be huge events, but they can be fun! Whether in business or in life, always find time to mark key moments. It helps to acknowledge where you started, reflect on what you’ve achieved, and dream about the possibilities of ahead, so you can celebrate again!

Looking ahead

These 15 years have been a fantastic whirlwind. Through it all, I remain so grateful for everyone that has played a role, allowing me to do the work I love. I am thankful for all that has been and all that is yet to be.

I am ready to pursue more dreams for the future of PeopleSense Consulting and I invite you to join me for the continuation of this journey together. Here’s to your Graceful Leadership!

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  1. Lee Sawyer on September 29, 2016 at 11:40 am

    This is why you are so awesome Robin.

    • Robin on September 29, 2016 at 12:51 pm

      Awww, you are so kind, Lee. Thank you for your friendship for more than these last 15 years. You certainly model these qualities that I admire.

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