The art of balance

Is perseverance a blessing or a curse? That was the curly question posed by Leon Gettler’s fantastic piece yesterday, which asked whether ever-optimistic entrepreneurs can sometimes struggle to tell the difference between a rough patch in their businesses and something far more serious.

The ability to persevere is an important quality in an entrepreneur. In the early days of a business, there are times when cash is low or non-existent, when the sales pipeline is empty and when just meeting payroll looks like a challenge.

As a business grows more challenges arise. Markets change. Laws and regulations shift. Economies fluctuate. Making payroll may not be a challenge, but steering a business through times of uncertainty takes all of an entrepreneur’s skill.

But business owners are fighters. They have faith. They are prepared to push through a rough patch because they believe in themselves and in their businesses.

Of course, this enthusiasm, belief and energy must be accompanied – indeed, sometimes tempered – by other qualities.

An ability to look outside the business and gather intelligence from around the industry. An ability to read market conditions and tell the difference between a tough period and a fundamental shift in the sector. An ability to set up strong processes and systems to provide the business with an early-warning system for deeper problems.

Entrepreneurs are often emotional types, so an ability to keep an even temperament, to balance enthusiasm with realism, is also crucial.

Asked recently what her greatest attribute was, outgoing Dun & Bradstreet chief executive Christine Christian pointed to her ability to create a calm environment.

Christian is one of the quiet entrepreneurial achievers of recent years. In 2001, Christian led the company through a management buy-out, during which local management took control of the company from D&B in the United States in a deal that valued the company at $25 million.

Six years later, she steered D&B Australia through its sale to Carnegie Wylie (now Lazard Private Equity) in a transaction that valued it at $120 million.

Then last year, she ran a dual-track sale process for D&B Australia and New Zealand. As well as working towards a float for the business, Christian was also negotiating to sell the company back to D&B in the United States.

Eventually, the US wing of D&B prevailed, buying the Australian and New Zealand business for $233 million.

You don’t produce a nine-fold return without a few ups and downs, but Christian says staying calm – and perhaps more importantly, showing your team that you are calm – is crucial.

Calmness allows for a rational decision-making process. It allows you to examine options carefully and come up with solutions much faster than when you greet bad news with an emotional response.

Like any entrepreneur, Christian is passionate, energetic and tenacious – leading a management buyout back in 2001, when they were relatively rare, takes belief.

But the fact she highlights calmness as one of her key strengths underlines the importance of balance in an entrepreneur’s make-up.

Of course, the balance doesn’t come easily to everyone.

Paul Greenberg, executive director of Deals Direct, is a high-energy, optimistic and passionate entrepreneur. Spend just a few minutes in a room with him and you feel your own energy levels picking up and the business world seems brighter.

As a pioneer of online retail in Australia, Greenberg’s perseverance has paid huge dividends.

But as someone with a degree in psychology, Greenberg’s good at reading himself and others. He knows, for example, that there are times when he needs to remove himself from a situation and prevent an overly emotional reaction. It might be as simple as taking a walk around the block, or ducking out of a meeting for a few minutes. Simple ways to restore the balance.

The lesson from Christian and Greenberg isn’t that perseverance can get you into trouble – it will forever be a crucial attribute in a business owner.

Rather, the lesson is about the importance of balance. Perseverance balanced with a great market radar. Emotion balanced with an ability to make great decisions. Energy balanced with calm.

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