It’s not enough to be busy!

August 6, 2017

Does anyone else ever to chuckle to themselves about this little built in, ‘pleasantry’ that exists in our small business culture? Everywhere I go, I get the same question (or variation of it)…. “keepin busy?”…..”stayin busy?”. I often catch myself asking others the same question.

I view this small talk exchange, much the same way as asking each other, “how are you doing”. It’s certainly implied that any response besides “good” or “great, how are you”, would be a major burden on our otherwise polite and simple exchange of pleasantries. “Staying busy?”, is relatively the same, in that the actual question is a redirect, and somehow viewed as a more polite and socially acceptable way of asking what we are really meaning to say……..”are you making any money?” I suppose the deeper intent, is mostly well intended, in that what we are likely getting at is, “are you living well”. This is ironic, since “are you making any money” is a very intrusive and rude thing to say in our culture, and is only a marginally accurate indicator of whether we are actually living well.

Outside of the irony of this common small talk pleasantry, there’s an even more fallible notion in our business society. This one does not discriminate against small or large firms. Somehow, we correlate staying busy with success. This principle trips up even the most seasoned and otherwise excellent business leaders. Obviously, positive energy and activity are good things, but if we aren’t busy doing the right things, than what’s the point. If someone is highly productive and does 8 hours of work that equals the productivity of their coworkers’ 10, they are often chastised for leaving early. Somehow, the employee who “comes in early and leaves late” (even as a result of their inefficiency), is praised for going above and beyond. We are all guilty of falling into this trap.

Once, when we were evaluating a particular business opportunity, I got a wonderful lesson on this concept. We were running a particularly new job process in our Coatings company. After auditing it, we realized we were barely covering our costs with this work. The immediate, ‘go to’ response for many business leaders (and it was mine that particular day) is to say, “well, at least we are covering some overhead and keeping people BUSY”. My investment partner at the time, and long-time mentor, said something that day, I will never forgot. He said, “we would be better each week when that job comes up, to pay everyone to go sit in the corner and do nothing….not even clean up. This way, the entire organization will fill the impact of it, and we could use that time to find a way to fill the void with more productive work.” His point was obviously exaggerated on purpose and we didn’t pay them to sit in the corner. What we did do, was immediately pull the plug on the deal and use that time and energy to search for more productive deals. Too often we hide behind “staying busy” and think that we can somehow dig our way to prosperity.

Believe me, being raised in a small town, family operated welding shop with deep German heritage, no one appreciates GRIT and HARD WORK more than me. In fact, those concepts are deeply ingrained in our business culture today, and a large part of why we have grown the company 20 times over in the past 10 years. With that said, we must continue to challenge ourselves, to ensure that we are busy doing the RIGHT things……whether its at work, or more importantly…….outside of it.