Thursday, December 15, 2005

And The Winner Is?

It seems I have been involved with family businesses since I was old enough to remember. The trading post is organized as a family corporation, and most of the companies I represent have grown out of some type of familial enterprise. So, it was no surprise when I was recently asked to participate in a presentation to a family who had built an extremely successful entity. These entrepreneurial individuals had found themselves in a muddle over how to transfer control to the next generation and decided an independent consultant might help break the log jam.

As I can attest, the challenges of working in a family business can be monumental. People often wonder at how Barry, Jana and I are able to work together so closely without severely injuring each other physically, emotionally and psychologically. In fact, I often wonder too; not how we avoid the damage, but how we survive it. Over the years, I have read a great deal about family businesses and am constantly amazed that the pathologies are precisely the same from entity to entity. Knowing we all suffer from the same problems, however, does not make things any easier.

With that in mind, I cautiously entered the conference room where the meeting was to be held. The discussions went on for several hours, and toward the end of the presentation, the exceptionally competent moderator stated she wished to utilize an old "Native American" method for resolving conflict, a method which she felt was applicable in their situation. The formula, she said, had four parts: (1) you have to show up; (2) you must participate in the process; (3) you must be honest; and (4) you should be open to unexpected outcomes.

Since those four factors appear to be the model for success in almost any aspect of life, I have been constantly thinking about them and how they apply to the trading post and my individual situation. I even began wondering whether the technique would be helpful in resolving the financial conflicts which arise when Barry and I are negotiating the price of an expensive rug or basket.

I was still mulling over the formula when the alarm went off the Saturday morning following Thanksgiving. It was a cold, gray, blustery day outside, and I was inclined to pull the covers up over my head and let the morning pass without even bothering to get up and feed the kids. I had, however, committed to run in the annual 5K Turkey Trot in Blanding, and knew I must at least show up and participate.

Honesty did not seem a serious concern in that particular situation, since it is difficult to be dishonest about running in such a small event. I did not even consider the fourth factor of the formula; unexpected outcomes. I have never been fast, so winning foot races has not become an important part of my agenda. In fact, Morris Swenson, my high school football coach, thought so much of my athletic skills that he labeled me "One Speed." The young guys, and even some of the old ones, always finish ahead of me. If I am lucky, I get a ribbon for placing in the top three in my age group; quite often because there are only two or three of us to start with, so we all get awards.

So it was as I stood on the starting line of the Turkey Trot, shivering, looking west along Highway 191 to Center Street and thinking about how much I would like to be inside a warm house instead of out in the cold. The first half mile of the course is slightly uphill, and once in a while I can gain a small advantage over the other old guys on this portion of the course if my muscles and joints are working properly. When the starting gun went off, I realized they were not; my legs were stiff and my lungs sputtering as I struggled to find a rhythm while staggering up the hill. The young guys were already pulling away as I crested the rise, but the old ones were still close enough.

Gary Torres, another local writer known as the Caveman because of his column titled My Cave My View, passed me just after the top of the hill, and I began to worry. During the July 4th race, Barry had informed me that I could not, under any circumstances, let Caveman beat me or it would further besmirch our reputation. Gary's column has won numerous awards, and ours has won, well . . . none. It may be fair to say that Barry was suffering pencil envy.

Keeping Gary close enough that I would have the chance to catch him during the last mile, I soldiered on. Suddenly, things began to go my way. I rounded a corner to find Gary on the horns of a dilemma. It seems all those young, fit runners, including the petite little girl in flip flops and toe socks, had taken a wrong turn and gone off the course. I considered letting Gary go as well, but that formula for resolving conflict popped into my head. "Gary, that's the wrong way, we need to go this this direction," I shouted, realizing almost instantaneously that I might have to gin up some excuse to explain to Barry why I had lost to the Caveman this time out. So much for honesty and integrity.

Gary corrected his trajectory and got back on track, but it was too late; I shot passed him. There I was, firmly in the lead, with my journalistic nemesis behind me and all the leaders on a misguided adventure. Years ago, somebody had said to me, "I am so far behind I thought I was in first place." Well, lightning had struck, and I was in the lead. I could not help chuckling to myself. A sense of fairness overwhelmed me and I briefly thought of slowing to let Gary catch up. Barry's directive was ringing in my ears, however, so I kept chugging along.

As I turned the corner towards the finish line, I could see the "What in the heck is Steve doing in the lead," look on the faces of the crowd. My sense of fair play returned, and, thinking I could easily snow Barry into believing that Gary had taken some unfair advantage, I stopped before the finish gate to let him and the others pass. The race organizers, however, shouted, "Go on. It will teach them a good lesson," so I sheepishly strolled across the line; just in front of the Caveman.

At the awards ceremony, I received the "Old Sage" award for having the sense to stay on course. It goes to show you what can happen if you just show up, participate and expect the unexpected. Who knows, if I can win a foot race, maybe I can organize this family and these artists. Now that would require a real miracle.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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