Sick Transit Gloria

While it might look easy from the outside, one of the most difficult jobs of anyone who advises a business owner—whether it’s a senior member of the company or a hired consultant—is being the person whose job it is to whisper in the client’s ear that their ego is becoming a problem. It’s even more difficult for them to accomplish this feat without losing their head or getting fired. Yet this is perhaps one of the most important aspects of their job that is never mentioned in the job description.

Most small businesses have been enjoying a long stretch of success over the past several years. Admittedly, the Coronavirus caused a scare, but the evidence seems to suggest that many businesses, especially those in the trades, enjoyed growth in 2020 and are continuing that performance with an even stronger year in 2021.

While this is without a doubt great news for many small businesses and their workers, it also presents a paradoxical threat to their continued success.

In the 1970 movie Patton, actor George C. Scott, who plays General Patton, is visiting the site of an ancient battle when he muses to his chief of staff:“For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot … A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: “Sic transit gloria (all glory is fleeting).”

In Roman times “captured treasure” included gold, precious gems, armaments, and slaves. In business it includes added customers, increased market share, and more money. Just like with ancient conquerors, when we start parading these treasures around, it’s easy to become complacent; to trick ourselves into thinking they can’t be lost or to lose our focus on what it took for us to earn them in the first place.

Just because we “can” do something doesn’t mean we “should” do it. That’s the paradox of success and there are two sharp edges to that sword. Success and its accompanying confidence and affluence can sneak up on an unsuspecting business owner. One day we can’t afford to buy a used car. The next day we’re test driving a Jag because we can. We start believing that our success will never end or even slow down. Before long, this thinking and decision making migrates to other areas of our business.

Our cash flow is healthy so we think we can afford to ignore our receivables, but it doesn’t mean we should ignore them. Or our sales have been strong for a while so we think we can afford to relax our marketing efforts, but that doesn’t mean we should.

One of the most difficult jobs when advising a business owner is filling the role of the slave who keeps the owner grounded when they’re on a winning streak or when they’ve enjoyed a string of conquests. Yet this is when it’s most needed.

This is one of those situations where I should count my blessings. In Roman times, when the ruler got tired of the slave cautioning him about his ego, the slave ended up being thrown to the lions. Today, consultants just get fired.

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