by Michael Feuer, author of “The Benevolent Dictator“
These days you can download an app for almost anything. Need to track a delayed business trip flight? There’s an app for that. Need to check on how much traffic the company Web site is getting? There’s an app for that. Want to update an important Word document or Excel file on the fly? There’s an app for that too. Need a workday procrastination break centered on how many levels you can conquer in a game involving some very angry birds? Yes, there’s even an app for that!
Unfortunately (and perhaps not surprising given the silly nature of some of these technological “advances”), there’s still no app for good old-fashioned common sense — that is something no one in business can afford to be without.
Technology has made many aspects of business more convenient and cost-effective. But it certainly hasn’t done anything to lessen the accuracy of the Voltaire quote that goes, ‘Common sense is not so common.’”
Indeed. As any experienced businessperson can tell you, there’s no shortcut or substitute for developing the kind of business horse-sense that can help you avoid angering an investor, mistreating a customer, or making any other ill-advised decision. All you can do is let experience be your teacher — or at least learn from those who’ve walked the business-building path before you.
The main reason to develop your own common sense and to make sure those you work with have it is that its presence covers a multitude of sins. When you have this elusive trait, you don’t have to know everything there is to know about being successful in business. That’s because common sense compels you to think before you act—and you’d be amazed by how few people are able to do this.
That said, here are five commonsense essentials to master before you do anything else:
Count to ten before hitting “send.”
The average executive nowadays receives more than 100 daily e-mails, and spends more than eight hours a week on electronic communications. That said, there’s bound to be a situation when you want to resort to sending a nasty e-mail to get your point across to an employee, vendor, or customer who has upset you. Take a breather before pressing “send.”
That e-mail you’re about to send is permanent — unlike your momentary anger. Wait until you’ve cooled down and can send a measured, carefully worded e-mail or, heck, go have a face-to-face conversation with the person. You might think everyone knows to do this, but sometimes our hot heads can get the best of us. It’s best to learn to restrain yourself.
Know what the deal is with your deals.
Some of the world’s best entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and salespeople got into their respective careers because they love the thrill of beating out the competition. Unfortunately, that important motivating factor can sometimes be blinding, making it impossible for them to make a business decision based on common sense.
Before every sale, new hire, big investment, or any other important business decision, take a moment to make sure you’re going after the best business opportunity and not just so you can say wow or you did it.
Age-old advice lasts for a reason — it’s good advice! That’s why “think before you speak” still holds up today. Again, the same boldness and exuberance that drives successful businesspeople to big wins can also drive them to say some pretty ill-advised things before they stop to think of the ramifications.
You might be well on your way to a great business deal and talk your way into trouble with an inappropriate remark or other TMI-influenced comment. The bottom line: Say only what needs to be said. Zip it before you talk yourself into trouble.
Don’t invest in fantasies.
Bernie Madoff delivered seemingly impossible gains to his clients, and they proved to be exactly that — impossible. He’s joined by the many bad hires who promised big results but never delivered or the seemingly profitable business partnerships that have been brokered only to end in lawsuits and court battles or simply complete failure.
If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Don’t invest in fantasies. I’m not saying one should be a diehard cynic in business, never trusting anything anyone says — instead, trust but verify. Research, research, research when you’re about to make an important decision, whether you’re taking on a big customer, making a new hire, or forming a partnership. And remember, if those folks are indeed worthy of your trust, they’ll understand why you want to check them out.
Always have a fallback plan.
Though you shouldn’t let Fear of Failure (FOF) dictate your every move, you can and should channel it to help you stay one step ahead of potential problems, which, if not avoided, could become painful — or worse. A healthy respect for failure evolves into a discipline that leads to having myriad contingency plans — A, B, C, and, sometimes, D — for when things don’t go the way you expect.
The initial concept and start-up work for Max-Wellness began in September 2008, at just about the same time as the market started to tank. Real estate values worldwide collapsed quickly, and corporations began dropping like flies. Availability of capital almost instantly dried up. To make matters worse, the supply chain began to splinter as suppliers from big to small experienced a sudden cash crunch. Panic and uncertainty became the currency of the moment.
The trick is to figure out how to minimize the pain during difficult periods, and then maximize the opportunity that the problem presents. In October 2008, I called a time-out on my plans for Max-Wellness, but I wasn’t ready to shelve the idea altogether. My admittedly sometimes skeptical team and I got to work on developing ideas on how to create a funding vehicle that would allow us to forge ahead with our plans. It took a willingness to move from Plan B to Plan C and so on, but we got there, and so did Max-Wellness.
No doubt about it: Without common sense you risk making costly mistakes on a daily basis. And if you’re thinking it’s something you’re either born with — or not — it can be a learned and developed skill.
No, it’s not as easy as simply buying a commonsense app. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone will ever develop that one. But you can learn from the experience of others, and that’s a resource that’s free (or nearly so). By reading up on success stories and cautionary tales, talking to lots and lots of people, and simply practicing the art of slowing down and thinking things through, you’ll start reaping the benefits of common sense and clear thinking before you know it.
(Editor’s note: Read our review of “The Benevolent Dictator” here.)
Michael Feuer cofounded OfficeMax in 1988 starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, a partner, and a small group of investors. As CEO, he grew it to more than 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales topping $5 billion. He is also CEO of Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and cofounder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness retail chain that launched in 2010. After opening initial laboratory test stores in Florida and Ohio, a national roll-out is now underway.