People Power: The will to prepare—and learn - June 2021

By Sam Allman

Generally, humans do not like to be nagged or told what to do. We like to be in control and independent. We push back when pushed or coerced. As I wrote in my last column, we have been endowed with “independent will.” Infants and young children exhibit independent will early. We want the freedom to do our own thing. That will drives us to take charge of our lives. It causes children to leave home, ignore their parents and friends’ advice, and create their own paths. It drove author Christopher Morley to write, “There is only one success: the ability to spend your life in your own way.”

Independent will gives us the power and motivation to change our circumstances, to do difficult things, overcome obstacles, continue striving even in failure and to be persistent in the quest of our desires. It is so ingrained in us that, to the extent that we give up our will in order to please others, earn acceptance and approval or avoid conflict, we work against ourselves as that undermines our personal sense of harmony.

In addition, losing control or even a perceived loss of control creates within us a feeling of helplessness. Instead of acting, we give up, quit trying and do nothing. Losing our will to act makes us feel like victims. Coercion, fear of failure, fear of success can stimulate helplessness. Multiple failures can stimulate a syndrome called “learned helplessness.” That’s when we justify our failures by blaming and shaming. The more we exercise our will, the more powerful we feel to control the direction of our lives by doing what will bring the results we want.

My father grew up in the Depression. He observed his father and his brothers exercise their independent wills through work. They worked in the copper, silver and gold mines of western Utah. Putting your shoulder to the wheel and nose to the grindstone were the ways to succeed in this life. When he first returned home from World War II, he often worked two full-time jobs. He was a great salesman. He won a brand new car in a national sales contest for selling Simmons mattresses.

One day, in the furniture store in which he worked, the carpet layer didn’t show up, so they sent my dad to install the carpet. He liked it, so the owner sent him to Roberts Carpet Laying School. He started with a needle and a spool of thread, a tack hammer, a knee kicker and a mouthful of tacks, then graduated to using a power stretcher and tackless strip. That new skill gave him the opportunity to acquire additional work and exercise his independent will. His war cry to his children was, “Cut your hair and get a job.” He believed in the power of work.

Though I did not grow up on a farm, I had a job at ten years old. I sold newspapers on the corner after school and helped my father and brothers install carpet during the summers and weekends. Initially, our main job was to thread needles, pick up scraps (“Always keep a clean shop”) and carry in the stretcher. Yes, my brothers and I would complain, but our dad would say, “I just get lonely without you guys!” He teased us by saying, “I only expect you boys to work a half a day, and I don’t care which 12 hours that is.” Dad was successful because of his work ethic and personal integrity.

At 93 years old, he was still going to his flooring store every day, even when he could no longer drive. My father exercised his independent will through work. His motto was “The more you sweat, the more you get.” He taught that ethic to his boys. We all raised our families by working in the floorcovering industry.

However, my dad did encourage me to get an education. He would say, “Sam, you are too lazy to be in this business, get an education.” He was very proud that I graduated from college, earned a master’s degree and was accepted to a Ph.D. program in microbiology and biochemistry. I had worked my way through university to that point by selling and laying carpet out of my student apartment while being married and raising four children. Eventually, after two years of my doctoral program, I came to a crossroads. My business was flourishing. I had to make a choice. Much to my dad’s dismay, I quit school, and with his help, I opened a retail flooring store.

I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. I made a flawed assumption: “If I can sell or install flooring, I can run a flooring store.” The store was successful. Business was good. Every year we increased in sales. It was gratifying to manage the business. I loved my customers, and it was fulfilling. After all, I was the go-to guy. I handled the problems, ran the installation crews, sold more than everyone else. I ran it like I was taught. Put your shoulder to the wheel … just work hard. I did, and I also worked long.

When I closed the store in the evenings, I didn’t go home. I measured jobs and did estimates in customers’ homes. I worked six days a week, often 12 hours a day for ten years, but my personal and family life suffered. For ten years, I deceived myself in believing I was in charge and I ran my business but, the reality was, it ran me.

My father’s mindset and passion were appropriate from whence he came and for his time. But that mindset limited his success as a business owner in the latter part of his life and certainly didn’t work long-term for me. I burned out, lost my passion, felt unfulfilled and unhappy. So I walked away, dumping the business into the laps of my brothers and my dad.

I became a carpet sales representative for a flooring distributor. That change invigorated me and lifted a burden off my shoulders. I finally had most Saturdays off and felt like all I had to do was drive around my territory, call on my friends, take them to lunch and sell them carpet. And I was good at it. My dealers liked me, but, most of all, they trusted me because they knew that I knew what it was like to be them, a flooring retailer. I had empathy, the most powerful human relationship skill and selling skill. Certainly that was one of the reasons I was successful at being a territory manager. Many of my customers were working like I did.

I regained my passion, but most of all, I learned more about myself and what I needed. I didn’t need to leave my business to do that. When I pondered this quote by the late coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, “It’s not the will to win that matters-everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters,” I learned I was not prepared to run a highly successful business. I had plenty of education, and I knew how to “do” the flooring business, but I didn’t know how to make it flourish, grow and be extraordinarily successful. The will to put my nose to the grindstone only took me so far. Like any great quarterback, I needed some downtime to study the playbook, evaluate my actions (watch film) and work on my quarterback skills.

As a territory manager I had that “down time,” or what others call “slack time.” Slack time allows one to breathe, think, ponder, learn specific knowledge and reinvent oneself to make necessary changes. My drive time (I had a large geographic territory) between accounts became my university on wheels. I listened to hundreds of educational tapes on entrepreneurship, managing and leading people, salesmanship, time management, building a business, financial management, improving relationships, etc. I have always been an avid reader. When I am reading, I do not feel I am wasting time. Though I was well-read and highly educated, I had little knowledge, specific knowledge, on business and business development. Instead of a master’s degree in microbiology and biochemistry, I should have obtained one in business and business administration.

I have never regretted my education, but I came to realize that one of the reasons I had burned out was that I hadn’t continued my education (preparation) after leaving the university. I hadn’t been reading, learning or evaluating my actions on the playing field of my flooring store. There is no shortcut to smart. I had been playing to win but hadn’t spent time off the field “preparing to win.”

Let me say here that many very successful entrepreneurs started as I did, knowing how to do a business: sell something, install something, cook a meal, bake cookies. As their small enterprises grew, they evolved, changed and learned to be true entrepreneurs. A true entrepreneur builds businesses by working on them instead of in them. Said Thomas Watson, IBM’s founder, “Every day at?IBM?was a?day devoted to business development, not doing business. We didn’t do?business at IBM,?we built one.” I was so busy “doing” with my nose focused on the grindstone, I rarely came up to breathe or take time to work on my business.

With or without a business degree, it takes at least two years of concentrated study to receive a MBA. That’s a lot of preparation. But if you are good at doing your business, you have the rest of your working life to master the entrepreneurial skills you need to build your business to heights you never thought possible if you will take your “will to prepare” to heart.

No matter where you are in your work or your life, step back and breathe. Take some slack time to evaluate your vision, i.e., where you want to go and your personal progress. Whether in slack or at work, consistently ask yourself, “Am I heading in the right direction?” What do you need to do differently? What do I need to learn? What could I do that would make the most difference in my life and business now? Immerse yourself in the study of business development and this industry. Devour this publication. Monthly, Floor Focus profiles industry leaders and successful entrepreneurs from whom you can learn. In May’s edition, Kemp Harr reported that the Stainmaster brand was sold to Lowe’s. Does that affect you, your product offering or your company’s brand? What will be your response? How much do you understand about marketing or branding? Should you learn more?

There is no one way to run a business or a life. We win if we can choose to do it our way. Work as hard as you can but what you work on is more important than how hard you work. It’s the “will to prepare to win” that matters.

Copyright 2021 Floor Focus 

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