Staying Strong – Business Lessons in Tough Times

Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Written By : 
Richard G. Watson

It’s November.  And Christmas is just around the corner; now is 5am, I’ve just boarded a plane (again), and for some reason I am thinking through the craziness that was 2016.  Not from a political, socio-economic or geographical point of view – but rather the events that shaped and moulded the year for the people in my world.  And frankly, thinking it over even half asleep, I have been humbled.

If I would have one word to describe this year, it would be resilience. I have seen more shows of strength from the most unlikely people and places this year than any I can recall before.  Mind you, my memory is not so great when it comes to remembering painful events in the past (I am sure many therapists would have lots to say about that), but this year has been something else entirely.

Business has been tough all round, in most places from what I can see and the people within my circle of friends and family, and clients, across several countries have had simply horrific things on a personal level this year.  I have learnt valuable life lessons from them all; well at least I hope I have learned from them.  We never really know until we are staring at such things directly in the face.

So, what business and personal lessons have I learnt from my friends, family and clients this year?  I have some stories to tell, and some key words to remember about staying strong in business (and at home). The stories are not unique, but they take on a whole new meaning for me when they are my stories. Apologies to those who can see themselves being highlighted.


A good friend of mine is in his early 70s, a successful and well known, has young children, an ex-wife, and fluctuating health.  Over a glass or two of his fine whiskey we have often talked about how he is planning to take care of his children after he is no longer able to do so.  It is as though he is putting together a 5-year business plan, and then carefully reviewing it, determining who will do what, and what the risks are.

While I am often involved with such planning with many people, I was impressed with his deliberate, almost objective (I won’t say unemotional) approach to his own demise, and how he would still take care of the people left behind.  It’s one thing to talk about it, quite another to do something and a whole other level when you start to put it together piece by piece.

The business lesson here? Continuity.  Planning for it, and not leaving it for our children to sort out after we are gone.  It takes insight and it takes guts.

Inner Circle

It is very satisfying to build a business from scratch and see it grow and flourish.  You learn a lot about yourself, about stress and enough about gratitude to make you cry.

Such is the tale of another friend of mine, who has built a business that just about any entrepreneur would be proud of; all in the space of about eight years.  I’ve watched it grow and I watched him struggle with it in the early years.  The only problem with this self-made business man was that he had no immediate family to leave the business to in the event something happened to him.   Not anyone who could take over the helm and steer a course forward and not anyone to guarantee that the business would go on and that his staff could still continue to work for the company if he were not around.

He struggled with this for a couple of years and we would touch base every now and then, to see if we could come up to something he would accept given his appetite for risk (very low) and business standards demands (very high).  We talked of trusts, company structures and succession planning – as well as politics and sports of course.

Over several coffee sessions, we finally came up with this: an inner circle of existing business colleagues that could advise and guide him now and given the right legal documentation, take over the running of his company for the good of his employees in the event of his death.

The business lesson here?  Go find your ‘Inner Circle’ (friends and colleagues, even clients).  Nothing quite like having a backup plan for your backup plan.

Plan A, Plan B, Plan C …

I rarely remember quotes or witty expressions let alone come up with any myself, but I always remember these two: “life is too short for shitty coffee” (an obvious one) and “life is simple, it’s just not easy” (yep, another obvious one).  In my business I deal with both of these frightening realities every day, but let’s focus on the latter for now.

No one wins an argument in my opinion, not without something being lost along the way.  Dispute resolution is tough but it’s part of everyday business life and a few of my clients have had first-hand experience dealing with this in their own businesses.  One client in particular has been to hell and back, with own brother; terrible, really terrible.  Letters and finger pointing, lawyers, court appearances, even a visit by the police SWAT team to his house late one night.  Nasty, nasty falling out that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars, his good health and literally split the family apart.  Most of us lesser humans would have fallen apart too but, no, he went to Plan B and after that Plan C.  He kept planning and working until one of the ‘Plans’ gave him the result he wanted.

The business lesson here?  Plan as many as you can, for it is likely that your first plan will not succeed.

Helping Hands

As a young man, I believed in the old saying “if you want something done right, then do it yourself”.  I also believed that sheer perseverance and pigheadedness would solve any problem presented, then I started my own business … the rest they say is history. 

Like most businesses, mine started with careful planning, great promise and a flurry of activity.  And then we hit a road bump called cashflow - an insurmountable road bump, wow, what a hard lesson to learn.  In the midst of my trying to climb over that road bump, someone whom I barely knew helped me out.  He simply wanted to assist because he could, based on a handshake and simple trust that I would repay his kindness - and, yes I did.

The business lesson here?  The best of us needs helping hands from time to time.  Forget pride – take the advice from someone who’s ‘been there done that’ and accept help from the unselfish benefactor; and work like crazy to repay that kindness and trust.

Professional and Strong

Earlier this year, a young man tragically passed away leaving behind a grieving widow and two beautiful young children.  The funeral was full of family and friend; and was both beautiful in its simplicity and heartbreaking in its finality.  I stood on the sidelines and watched helplessly during the funeral service and procession, knowing that in a terrible instant only days beforehand the lives of many had been changed for life.

Two weeks after the funeral this young man’s widow went back to work, not because she wanted to but because she had to.  Despite the obvious heartbreak, her two children needed a mother and provider.  So, she put on the best smile she could manage and worked diligently to take on the role of both father and mother to her children.  I could only admire her courage and strength, and the quality of the work she produced was simply extraordinary.  I know I could not have been half as brave or professional in the same situation, let alone produce the output that she did.  It was a humbling experience for me to say the least.

The business lesson here?  People are stronger that we give them credit for and inspiration can come from the most unexpected people in difficult times.  Putting on a smile and soldiering on create positive change for oneself, not just for those in difficulty but also to those one’s team.

Turning Up

You meet some of the nicest people in the most unusual of places and times, and every time I am introduced to someone new and I think I have their business angle worked out, something comes along to surprise me, usually in a very positive way.  Such was the case with a retired couple I met earlier this year.  What started out as a discussion to assist them in structuring their business, led on to a far more important and enlightening discussion where I learned the real driving factors behind their global and local business plans.

Here were two of the loveliest people you could wish to meet, not only planning an ambitious charitable business venture in the poorest of communities but, having already implemented programs some years before had changed the lives of so many families and entire villages, helping them to be self-sufficient within two years.  So, yes, I advised them on the structure but I was touched by their story, that my company helped them restructure their business at no charge – and we are now a sponsor of their program.

This was one retired couple who set out to make a difference – and they did and will continue to do so for years to come.

The business lesson here?  We all need to have a passion, make big plans and then turn up.  Support can come from many places because others can see and share with that passion and commitment.



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