My Business Has Completely Stalled. What’s My Problem?

Expectations are the fulcrum of business. Customers and clients will come or go on their expectation that you will, or won’t, satisfy certain requirements. Likewise, your expectations of your staff and yourself can propel you forward in common purpose or drive you apart in dissatisfaction.

Expectations are there to be met, dashed, or exceeded.

But what are they? Expectations are outcomes considered most likely to happen. They can be based on experience or they can be speculative – meaning the desired outcome rides on an unsubstantiated prediction or not necessarily realistic hope. As in, I like that company’s logo. I’m sure they make superior widgets. I’ll buy some. Or, this strategy tanked the last seven times we tried it, but I’m confident it’ll fly this time. Let’s go all-in.

While there’s no shortage of simple-minded articles intended to help business owners develop so-called best practices for managing customer and employee expectations, it’s really not so simple. Actually, expectations are more like theSupreme Court’s definition of pornography – hard to define but you know it when you see it. They’re personal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations after I got this email from a reader who was responding to my last BNET post, “What’s Really Holding You Back From Getting Things Done?” (it has been edited for clarity):

I started my online business 4 years back … After our initial launch, the plan was to create more websites dedicated to other services in this space. Since then I’ve just been stuck with the one website and one relatively recent launch. I keep getting stuck with issues, feature requests, etc. How a couple of years went by like that, I’m not sure.

I guess part of the problem was that I just didn’t know how to hire for and delegate the work I was doing myself. I’ve tried delegating and I’m not very successful at it. I just want to do a lot of things myself because I don’t trust my team will do it well (they’ve made big mistakes in the past) and I just like to be in total control. This trait of mine unfortunately has led me into a situation where I’ve landed myself with such a huge to-do list that I don’t really end up completing. Plus, I’ve been so involved in solving issues as they come up that I haven’t really been supervising the team of people under me enough. Things just don’t seem to be progressing anymore. What should I do?

A cornerstone of my work as a business adviser is first understanding as much as possible about a situation and its causes before prescribing remedies. So without knowing a lot more, I can’t definitively answer the question of what this guy should do.

But this is what I hear at the surface: inadequate start-up planning and meager development strategy, indecisive leadership – including poor staffing choices, difficulties delegating, and ineffective management – and flat-footedness in identifying and addressing the myriad hurdles and set-backs most new businesses are bound to face in some form or another.

All important to correct. But they’re by-products. The real culprit: everything encompassed by what he calls “this trait of mine” – the underlying issues causing his self-defeating decision making, mis-calibrated expectations of what’s probable, and paralysis to effect necessary course changes.

I’d recommend a two-pronged approach to jump-starting this stalled venture.

  1. The first entails making a host of smart and solid business choices:
    • Staff: Cut the chaff and bring on some wheat.
    • Leadership: Consider engaging a sharp, seasoned co-helmsman.
    • Systems and Operations: Get competent assistance to analyze the administrative and procedural back-log and implement appropriately prioritized solutions.
  2. The second has to examine why these problems arose and then were left to fester:
    • Understand your strengths and weaknesses.
    • Enlist help for both.
    • Scale and align your expectations with your actual capabilities and circumstances, not the ones you wish you had.

Remember that expectations are about future events. And the key to advantageously managing expectations is correctly interpreting patterns from previous events.

So don’t just look ahead; look back too.

What’s Really Holding You Back From Getting Things Done

Business doesn’t get done if you can’t get things done. Simple as that. Every business owner knows that good time management is a corner-stone of profit and productivity. And that ineffective or inefficient use of time accounts for a substantial drain

Sure, your schedule’s already tighter than a NASA mission, and your to-do list is longer than the Health Care Bill. But still, there are only 24 hours in a day. Do you suffer from GMTD (general multi-taskcrinating disorder), meaning you can’t do everything because you’re trying to do everything?

There’s no shortage of apparently helpful resources to boost your time management IQ: blog posts, coaching advice, productivity experts, even tips from the Ãœber-guru of Getting Things Done.

But the most popular strategies espoused by the experts above mainly look at the first three inches of why productivity falls into a gully – too many distractions and interruptions, poor prioritizing, disorganized to-do lists, tech glitches. The fixes and work-arounds they typically offer are just as superficial.

Beyond all of those surface issues, there is much more to the problems of chronic procrastination, edge-of-the-minute task completion, and behind-the-8-ball management. My advice: Look deeper to learn what’s really holding you back, and how to get – and keep – you and your business ticking.

Start by realizing that it’s not about time; it’s about your relationship to the goal. What do I mean? Consider these feet-dragging business owners (I’ve disguised some identifying details here):

Theo: He recently brought a thoroughbred creative director into his design firm. His new superstar is attracting buzz and blue-chip projects. Now, to leverage this and really take his business to the next level he needs to streamline operations and show a few duds to the door. But he keeps putting it off.

James: Following a dazzling attention-grabbing product launch, a new client he’d been courting for months presented him with a game-changing opportunity. To make this fly, James has to put himself and his staff in hyper gear. He knows exactly what needs to be done. But he’s deferring all the preliminary activities.

These successful, high-performing CEOs can manage their inboxes, wrangle their to-do lists, and say “no” to low-priority tasks until they’re as sleek and efficient as Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly. But here’s why none of that will unhook them from their critical sticking points.

Theo is ambivalent about growing his business. He’ll tell you he’s ambitious and his success to-date is proof of that. But now that he’s actually positioned to kick things up a notch or three, part of him isn’t so sure he’s ready-or willing-to run a hot-shot shop handling high-profile work.

The Fix: Theo’s business issues are playing out in staffing and time management but to run his business better, he needs to first resolve his conflict about where he wants to go.

James is by every objective measure an admired and successful 44-year-old businessman with plenty of entrepreneurial drive. He knows how to plan and execute. Being the best is what gets him up in the morning. But privately, he sees himself as a teenage prodigy with a lifetime of potential still to realize. He’s unable to relinquish the feeling that his best is yet to come. So, however irrationally, he wears gravity boots, struggling harder than necessary to reach every new brass ring, unknowingly holding himself back in the past.

The Fix: James’ apprehension feels real enough. But it’s an old impediment (which surfaces at crux moments) that needs to be quarantined and resolved separately from business. In my experience, problems with time management are rarely only about the management of time. For many business leaders, procrastination and other similar struggles are usually a symptom – visible evidence, as with Theo and James, of some personal friction or restriction about moving forward.

Bottom line: Getting things done is a completely learnable and improvable set of skills. But to really optimize your use of time, don’t just grease the clock. First understand why it’s off.

Entrepreneurs, what are you putting off? Email me your situation (here’s my contact page) and I’ll analyze it in a future blog post.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., business psychoanalyst, is a principal in the Boswell Group, a consulting firm focusing on the psychology of business.

The Secret to Building a Stronger Business

What are the key factors that make or break your business? Your product or service? Your customers? Capital? Just plain luck?

Sure, those are all important. But I’d argue that ultimately it comes down to people, and more specifically: you. As chief executive, you impact every aspect of your business. Even when you delegate, your personality and decisions influence everything. It stands to reason that leaders who are psychologically in tune – meaning resilient, agile, and aware – are not only more effective, they also bring an unmatchable competitive advantage to their businesses.

How can you make that happen?

Many leaders – even those who run businesses with people-centric cultures – tend to prefer a straight-ahead, hit-the-ground-running, just-make-it-go approach to managing people. The alternative I recommend is an inside-out – rather than outside-in – view of managing people. When an employee makes a mistake or a bad decision, your first question should be “Why did he do that?” not “What can we do about it?” In the long run, this more psychologically savvy management tactic pays dividends. If you want to motivate someone, you better understand first what motivates her.

To me, this is common sense, but, of course not everyone in the business world agrees. A recent article in The Economist would have managers believe that trying to understand a worker’s psychology amounts to meddling. Worried about an employee’s emotional state or stress level? Careful, that may very well cross a privacy boundary! In fact, the article refers to the business world’s “new-found interest in promoting mental health” as if that were a bad thing. It questions the assumption that “promoting psychological wellness is as axiomatically good as encouraging the physical sort,” and worries that a “mental-wellness movement” will inevitably attract “charlatans and snake-oil salesmen.”

I can’t post the word that captures my true opinion of all that; “bunk” will have to do. Think of the issue this way: If your copy machine is broken, you fix it; if your delivery system is gunked, you grease it; if your shop is dark, you light it. Why treat the human factor less responsibly?\

Obviously, understanding and changing people is more complex than copiers and light bulbs. But the same principles hold: If, say, your sales team’s performance needs your attention, you attend to it; and the right procedure follows a good diagnosis.

And by the way, dysfunction shouldn’t be your first clue to pay attention. Like world-class athletes, top business leaders improve on excellence by understanding what already works well. The more you know about yourself and the underlying forces that push and pull you, the better equipped you’ll be to make even better decisions going forward.

What to Do: Strengthening your business by investing in “psychological capital,” as I call it, doesn’t happen overnight. But here are two key pointers to get you started, culled from my experience advising entrepreneurs and senior executives navigating complex circumstances and looking to refine their leadership capabilities:

1. Understand that we all naturally assert the vexing tendency to try to keep things the same, notwithstanding good intentions and recognized imperatives to make things different. Have you ever resolved to lose weight, quit smoking, be more patient, or otherwise try to change yourself? How did it work out? My point exactly. So long as this potent streak of irrationality is left unchecked, your magnificently designed and deployed blueprints for business success are in constant danger of becoming irrelevant.

First step: Identify the issue – say, become a better listener, feel more confident at board meetings, get your SVP to micro-manage less, understand why morale is low.

Next: Start thinking about what the issue is made of, not how to change it. Talk about your ideas with a spouse or trusted colleague, confidante, or consultant.

And remember, dismantling and reconfiguring entrenched systems requires time, thoughtful attention, and heavy lifting.

2. Change isn’t about finding easily opened doors. Whatever your desired outcome, what’s most crucial to geting there is identifying and unraveling the tangle of ingredients, understanding how and why they got there, and then putting something new in motion.

Consider the co-founders of a music production and distribution business. The partners, Frank and Darryl, thought they were on the same page about all the important things. Business was good, and they were good friends. But when I first met them, I found two guys at loggerheads over nearly every decision. Already behind schedule on several high-value projects, they felt pressured and wanted me to help them resolve things yesterday.

The deadlines were real enough. But the pressure was synthetic; they’d deferred addressing their conflict until it was nearly too late. Now they were making instant resolution my responsibility.

Here’s what we did: With me and then together, they aired out their simmering frustrations and resentments so that eventually, the temperature lowered enough for them to actually move ahead on time.

The job wasn’t done once I’d helped them achieve on-time completion. That was only a temporary flight back into the good working stasis they already knew.

Getting Frank and Darryl’s partnership, and their business, truly solid required navigating through the substance of their discord, learning why it was there, why things had finally gone south after years of apparent harmony, and helping them know how to unstick themselves in the future.

How to Be an Above-Average Decider

We’ve all been there: the crossroads between one decision and another: Go or stay? Now or later? This or that? What’s right? Sometimes, the answer’s easy  the choice seems obvious and you just know what to do; sometimes, it’s not. And sometimes you make decisions you don’t even realize you’re making.

So what goes into a high-stakes decision? And how can you improve your stats on making advantageous choices?

Being a consistently above-average decider is about more than devising a roster of binary options  do vs. don’t, this vs. that, now vs. then, here vs. there  and then pulling each trigger with optimal timing such that intention and outcome are aligned. All important, to be sure. But it’s only what you’re deciding, the external metrics of goals and actions.

The DNA of how and why you make decisions is different. It’s fundamentally about who you are, and what happens to you in x, y, or z circumstance.

Consider Ed Clooney (not his real name), 55, who heads a 60-employee East Coast advertising firm. In our first meeting, Ed fired off criticisms of his senior managers  middling project execution, waffling on client matters, mishandling staff and operations issues, squabbling between themselves. My task: “Figure out why my boys are off track and get them back on it,” he implored.

I’ve heard this from the corner office before; the story is inevitably more complicated. Far from being ineffectual, I eventually learned that Ed’s management team was holstering its collective skills and talents in response to Ed. Though he was completely unaware of it, turned out Ed used a bait and switch: He thought he was encouraging Alpha decisiveness  and so felt justified in his annoyance at his lieutenants’ failures to follow his leadership. But what he unwittingly communicated was that he didn’t really want anybody else in the driver’s seat. Even if you drove well, he’d criticize you for taking the wheel. Ed’s a smart, creative entrepreneur who’d hired top-shelf people and built a successful company. He could make great decisions. And he hadn’t always behaved this way. What was going on now?

Ed’s super-charged imperative to call the shots, I came to understand, was originally shaped by his growing up with a sick father and having to care for his younger brothers while their mother was off working. It’s not all bad; that history played its part in propelling him to work hard, build his business, stay healthy, and take care of his boys. But it also generated a need to never feel incompetent or weak.

After a time, Ed confided to me that he was privately considering stepping back from the helm, and was assessing his senior team for a potential successor.

The possibility of relinquishing command  an unspoken and undecided decision  was the spark for Ed’s seemingly inexplicable down shift in leadership. Though a potentially positive move for him and his company, it called-up a dire backward-looking vision unrelated to business: his being the absent father and letting his family/company collapse.

What to do? Ed’s recognizing there was something he couldn’t figure out  which actually went beyond what he thought it was  and then reaching for assistance was its own difficult decision. Looking ahead, Ed need not reveal his intentions regarding stewardship before he’s ready to. But he has to understand that the mere idea of it is causing reactions in him that are already adversely impacting his senior staff and their work together. Reconciling his ambivalence about what he’s planning will enable Ed to devise ways of redistributing power and authority so his managers can play to their strengths. Likewise, they need to stop passively ceding their assets to keep Ed from unraveling, and get back to business.

So what can you think about when facing important decisions?

Every decision is situationally distinct, with its own unique sets of ingredients, parameters, and ramifications. There’s no shortage of pundits bloviating on the golden rules of being (or appearing) decisive and vivisecting leaders who are not. But static generalized guidelines about how to be a leader who makes excellent decisions are usually situationally useless. Good decision-making is a learned, entirely individualistic process. Knowing more about how you operate is part of every successful business owner’s job.

Timing and context can change everything. Ed was treating his executive activities as if his life literally depended on it. At one time in his life, that was true in its own way. But no longer. Even supremely unflappable people can become psychologically disoriented in highly charged moments, and your usual capabilities can slip. So take your time. Agility and decisiveness aren’t in opposition to being thoughtful and deliberative.

Sometimes, the most important part of a good decision is understanding what’s driving you to make it.

Would You Survive Without Your Business?

What would happen to your business if you were diagnosed with cancer?

Meet Javier de la Uz. In August 2009, while on vacation in Vail, Colorado, with his wife Angela and their four young daughters, Javier suddenly had difficulty breathing. He chalked it up to high altitude, and continued to enjoy his family holiday.

Back home in Rockford, Illinois, elevation 715 feet, Javier dove back into his businesses, ADV Enterprises (which adds value to real estate by urban planning and design and build services), and its subsidiaries, ADV Partners and ADV Real Estate Investments.

The labored breathing continued. Maybe it was asthma, he thought. He was too busy for distractions. But Javier’s chest still wheezed and crackled; Angela insisted he see a doctor.

He finally went on September 8. “I’ll never forget the look on my doc’s face when she returned with the test results,” he told me. “It’s severe,” she said. The diagnosis: Lymphoma. “You’re in for a battle,” the oncologist said. Immediate surgery was required.

Javier barely slept that night. “I had three major concerns: my health, my family’s financial well-being, and the stability of my businesses. My bottom line: If I’m dead, nothing else matters. I decided then and there to focus on fighting my cancer. Other people would have to focus on my businesses for me.”

Planning for the worst 
Javier called an early morning meeting in his hospital room. In attendance: ADV’s senior management team, his twin brother José (ADV’s Field Operations Manager at the time), his lawyer, and his wife. Javier surgically dissected his businesses, indefinitely removed himself as President, and redistributed authority and responsibilities among them.

“When the surgeon walked in, he couldn’t believe I was holding a business meeting.”

That procedure achieved its aim, but additional biopsies brought a clarified diagnosis: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Diffuse large B-Cell (NHL-DLBCL). Treatment required a 6-cycle course of chemotherapy followed by radiation.

Once home he suffered multiple side effects of the chemo  constant profound exhaustion, nausea, headaches  the psychological whiplash of being abruptly unhinged from work, the specter of mortality, and a visceral fear of infection.

Catapulted from leadership of ADV, Javier took the helm of combating his NHL. He re-directed his entrepreneurial skill-set  being ultra organized, forward-thinking, and purposeful  to navigating the quagmire of insurance procedures and studying his cancer.

A turning point came when his Oncologist’s office offered a stack of pamphlets instead of answering his questions. “I immediately decided to switch hospitals and doctors,” Javier told me.

He located Dr. Andrew M. Evens, an oncologist at The Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, a 2-hour drive from Rockford. “I have 4 daughters, a wife, and my businesses. I want to live,” Javier told Dr. Evens; they met 48 hours later.

New tests showed markers for Burkitt’s, a more aggressive and lethal form of lymphoma. Javier’s new treatment, Hyper C-VAD, amped the nastiest side effects off the charts. He was a dish rag.

A new perspective 
Where are Javier and his businesses now? He’s responded well to the chemo, and his long-range prognosis looks good. While ADV’s overall profits modestly declined just after Javier disbursed management authority from his hospital bed, the businesses rebounded and stabilized.

How is ADV holding its own without him? Among many factors, I think these are the most important:

1. Great staffing: Javier already had key people in place capable of responding to the psychological and procedural challenges of being prematurely thrust into new positions

2. Solid customer and vendor relations

3. Well-constructed and defined business development plans

4. Excellent company values  be honest, responsive, do what you say you’ll do, work hard  which match its people, culture, and market

5. A strong, smart leader who had the good sense to take himself out of the picture so his businesses could take care of business

“It’s been overwhelming but also moving,” Javier said. “My brother José’s not only had to deal with having his twin brother fighting for his life, but has stepped up on no notice to many of my responsibilities in the businesses.”

He continued, “I’d never considered it before, but I wouldn’t have predicted the business could operate so well without me. My cancer has given me an opportunity for a new perspective on organizing my business. I can see the benefit of standing back, and once I’m able to return I’ll think about how I might run things differently.”

Many executives have more than just a deep personal investment in their business; work can be a proxy for their identity and a barometer of self-valuation, with their sense of self-worth yo-yoing with the business’ ups and downs. By contrast, Javier doesn’t feel threatened or marginalized by his managers’ success.

This could just be a healthy but transitory survival response  cancer is the beast to fight now; all others can wait  which will shift once Javier recovers and returns to work. Even if so, he embodies an important psychological characteristic of success: the ability to convert adversity to sustainable achievement.

Javier’s advice to other business owners: “Have a plan, on the business and the personal side, in the event you become ill or die. Have insurance and understand your policies. Don’t wait.”

Raise your communication IQ

(Fortune Small Business) – How would you rate your skill at communicating? Excellent? Average? You prefer that someone else do the talking? Everybody knows that effective communication is essential to entrepreneurial success. So how can you raise your communication IQ?

Like a hi-fi system, verbal communication integrates input, processing, and output. Communication specialists typically focus on improving output. That is what everyone experiences when you speak: your command of language; your accommodation of social mores and boundaries; how nimbly you respond to nonverbal cues.

Much of the processing function happens unconsciously. As children we’re taught to “use our words,” and before long, communicating becomes as natural as walking or riding a bike. At a conscious level, processing also includes strategies and rules of engagement that require you to put your brain in gear  thinking about where you want the conversation to go, which statements are appropriate in a particular context and so on.

At the deepest level there’s your personal psychology. It includes your gender, ethnicity, and sociocultural background  and it shapes your fears, insecurities, and reflexive reactions and defenses. These elements combine to mold your unconscious “understanding” of how people relate to one another, as well as your expectations of how others will treat you.

How does this all play out? With so many variables, there’s a nearly infinite array of scenarios, some workable, others not.

Consider Robert and Evan, president and senior vice president, respectively, of an established, mid-size wealth management firm. (I’ve disguised some identifying details.) Evan, 52, is a model of Ivy League B-school poise and professionalism. His demeanor, in addition to his savvy and expertise, calms skittish clients with nose-diving portfolios.

The problem: Robert, 71, is an old industry lion. Clients admire Robert, but he tends to be barbed with Evan and undermines the staff. To make matters worse, he’s an execrable listener, perpetually interrupting his colleagues or talking over them. For a long time Evan reacted by muzzling himself. He didn’t want to resign because he’s in line to run the firm after Robert retires. He told himself that allegiance to his mentor and firm – and his handsome compensation – made up for his deeper pain and outrage. But he was breaking under the strain.

What to do? In my discussions with Evan, it soon became clear that he identified Robert with his father. To the outside world, Evan’s dad was a pillar of the community. At home he raged like a Hun. As a kid, Evan was terrified of his father’s temper but could never tell friends what his life was really like.

By decoupling the historical image (father) from the current person (Robert), Evan learned to speak up for himself and his staff. That was a major breakthrough for Evan. Still, he had to learn how to use his newfound voice. Before one important meeting with Robert, Evan ran his presentation past me. He sounded nervous.

“I’d never be so scared if I were just talking to my wife,” he said. “Let’s hear that version,” I proposed. The words didn’t change, but Evan instantly sounded more relaxed and confident. He had been telegraphing his fear without knowing it. Robert picked up Evan’s nervous signals, which in turn triggered the boss’s toxic assaults.

Here are some tips that should improve your communication skills.

Recognize that not every aspect of communication is under your control. We all convey messages we don’t intend. And other people often interpret our messages in unexpected ways. That’s not always a bad thing, especially if you’re comfortable (or can become comfortable) with spontaneity.

Accept the fact that misunderstandings and conflict are unavoidable. The goal is not to evade them but to address them head-on. The longer damaging or uncomfortable things are left unspoken, the longer they remain damaging and uncomfortable.

Study yourself. Know your triggers and how you typically express feeling hurt, angry, or threatened. Cultivate relationships where you can safely air your honest thoughts and reactions. Finally, set realistic expectations. Robert wasn’t about to change, so Evan had to take responsibility for improving their communication. That might seem unfair, until you consider the bleak alternative of keeping things the same.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a business psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group and Triad Consulting.

Break bad habits, make more money

(Fortune Small Business) – Have you ever tried to lose weight or quit smoking? Or been chided to listen better or to be more patient?

Maybe you’re thinking you’d boost business if you exhibited greater confidence, assertiveness or agility, or made clearer, faster decisions, or weren’t so irritable. No question, there’s plenty of upside to making some adjustments.

But changing an ingrained pattern, whether behavioral or emotional, is one of life’s greatest challenges. Entrepreneurs like to think they eat obstacles for breakfast, and there’s no shortage of gurus and pundits dishing out self-improvement advice. But real change is still very hard. As anyone knows who has ever made a resolution only to break it days later, it’s easy to backslide.

So how does change click, and how can you make it stick? While I acknowledge that these questions have a thousand answers, here are some of the key areas I focus on with many of my clients.

Getting started

The first hurdle is a reluctance to address matters related to emotions and behavior. If your computer, car or air conditioner isn’t performing optimally, you probably won’t waffle on having it checked. But in working with entrepreneurs, I find that they tend to be more reluctant than most people to acknowledge emotional issues and ask for help. The most typical reasons that I’ve encountered are the fear of feeling weak and the fear of being seen as vulnerable. Both are tough to defeat — so don’t. Instead, take these uncomfortable feelings as stage one in a complex project that will require strength and commitment to complete.

Conflict and resistance

We often work against ourselves to keep things static, even when we want them to move. In most cases today’s emotional impasse started as a legitimate coping device shaped by the innumerable factors of nature and nurture (birth order, innate disposition, parents’ personalities, major events and catastrophes and so on). The instinct to survive takes many forms. One child might learn to be quiet and restrained so as not to ignite a volatile father. Another could learn how to be “up” to counter a depressive mother.

While some of these adaptational maneuvers work better than others in practice, they are frequently marvels of innovation. Problems tend to come later, when we cling to those early strategies even though times and circumstances have changed — repeating contradictory behavior, remaking poor decisions and applying old and often inappropriate solutions to new problems. The son of an angry father might grow up to be a calm businessman who keeps hiring rantaholics. He may think the past is past, but he’s actually still engaging the beast (his dad). Rationality holds little sway over these deeply embedded patterns, and you can’t just yank them away. In order to change the pattern, you must first understand its original purpose and function.


Think of memory as an iceberg: The visible tip is what you can remember. But what is hidden is not forgotten. It lies beneath the surface, operating outside of awareness — until something happens to remind you of it (such as finding yourself at the precise place you’ve worked to avoid or becoming repetitively stuck or stymied). Until you understand the meaning of these buried experiences, they will always take you by surprise — perhaps in the happy form of inspiration or, less constructively, as an impediment or a constriction.


You’re busy managing your business, working to stay ahead of the recessionary typhoon. Why should you think about any of this? Because successful leaders look for every competitive edge. And being emotionally in tune — resilient, agile, aware — is an unmatchable advantage.

There’s no simple prescription for change. But here are the first crucial steps:

Recognize that your personal history plays a central role in shaping your behavior.

Revise any prejudice against emotional inquiry. Accept the fact that fear, rigidity and avoidance are corrosive — and that reaching an understanding about yourself can reap rewards.

Admire psychological complexity; don’t let it intimidate you. Decode your mind to harness its natural ingenuity.

Respect the gargantuan force of your emotional life. Emotions can propel you to success. They can also impede and even straitjacket you. No matter what, you can’t ignore your emotions and still hope to prosper in business or in life.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a business psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group and Triad Consulting.

Smart staffing can save your business

(Fortune Small Business) — My maternal grandparents, Minnie and Izzy Grubman, owned a ladies’ undergarment and accessories shop called Grubman’s, on Springfield Avenue in Newark. In July 1967 the city was rocked by six days of rioting, fueled by unemployment, poverty and corrosive racial inequity. The rioters attacked both white- and black-owned businesses. But when the smoke had finally cleared, Grubman’s was unscathed.

Mr. and Mrs. G., as they were known, had always hired employees from the local community and were celebrated for their fairness and generosity. When trouble came, staff and neighbors protected the store.

My point: Good hiring decisions can save your business. Okay, it’s easier said than done. So what are the ingredients of successful hiring? Think of it as a sequence of double-layered decisions. On top is the conventional wisdom of hiring individuals who are right for the job and compatible with your company’s culture, values and needs.

But hiring also reflects deeper-level predispositions in making decisions and building relationships. As we form new relationships, we tend to unconsciously seek out and rediscover dynamic elements from significant early ones (like those with parents and siblings). For some people this creates a pattern of similar, recurring train wrecks. For others it generates constant relationship R&D. At best this unconscious patterning will attract you to individuals who balance, inspire and bolster you.

Consider Joe Saba and Stewart Winter, co-owners ofVideoHelper, a successful New York City business that provides music for TV and film productions. When we spoke in their high-tech studio, the partners had recently plowed through 400 applications to fill one full-time composer slot. They devote considerable time and resources to their hiring process, which they described as “brutal and stringent.”

Saba and Winter started by whittling the initial herd down to 10 finalists, whom they subjected to a series of increasingly intense interviews and tests. These probed not just technical ability but also the way each candidate handled criticism, praise and pressure.

This work pays off: VideoHelper enjoys a 95% talent retention rate, and most employees have been with the company for at least seven years.

Few entrepreneurs reach this high standard of psychosocial savvy. I briefly consulted with Bert, as I’ll call him, a guy who tended to make tone-deaf staffing decisions. Bert’s hiring credo was something like “Trust no one, and only hire people you trust.” Unsurprisingly, he had a lot of trouble keeping help.

Bert’s chronic mistrust was understandable, given his traumatic childhood with an abusive father. After just a few sessions, however, he suddenly decided that he couldn’t trust me either. In a flash I fell victim to the very dynamic I’d been engaged to cure.

Like anybody who has ever been fired, I pondered what had happened and what could have gone differently. Based on my own experience and that of my clients, here are some tips that will bolster your hiring chops.

Study the Past. History holds important clues to your relationship patterns. Analyze recent hires/fires for information about your hiring predilections.

Don’t Get All Testy. Personality tests have their place, but they can’t capture inflection, gestures or other nuances of communication. Nonverbal cues can be more meaningful than what’s said.

Do Your Homework. Avoid “going with your gut.” Instinct has limited utility in the hiring arena.

Follow Through. Hiring employees is only the beginning: It takes time, attention and, most important, good communication to retain quality employees. It’s crucial to monitor your reactions to frustration, disappointment and other interpersonal dynamics.

Bottom Line. The more you understand about yourself and the underlying forces that pull you toward or away from somebody, the better equipped you’ll be to make sensible hiring decisions.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a business psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group and Triad Consulting.

Starting a business in a recession

(Fortune Small Business) – Would you consider launching or growing a business in the midst of the Great Recession?

Some would applaud your courage; others might think you had a few loose screws. And yet economic downturns have often been fertile ground for innovation and entrepreneurship. More than half the companies on the 2009 Fortune 500 list were launched during downturns, according to recent research by the Kauffman Foundation.

Economists offer many reasons for this phenomenon: Corporate layoffs release entrepreneurial talent, the decline of old industries creates opportunities in new ones, and so on. Still, recessionary entrepreneurship is not an easy game. What does it take, psychologically, to pull it off?

Jim Kremens, 42, runs a New York City-based software startup called Fhtml. His product, Fluid HTML, is a Web markup language designed to be an alternative to standard Flash animation. He plans to exit stealth mode this fall. Although Kremens has secured buzz, startup capital and encouraging responses from top-tier companies, Fhtml’s success is not assured, especially in this brutal economy.

“I’ve been working on this project for a long time,” he told me recently. “It evolved into something very real and more powerful than I originally thought. Entrepreneurs like me have to think we’ve got some kind of game changer. That belief, valid or not, drives innovation.”

The impulse toward distinction and accomplishment is very powerful (although its psychological sources are different for everybody). Under the right circumstances it can help entrepreneurs turn inspiration into reality.

If it were that simple, mind you, Edisons and Bells would be a dime a dozen. “This is a high-risk endeavor,” Kremens says. “It’s frightening to come home to my kids and wonder what I’ll do if this doesn’t work.”

Yet Kremens finds the challenge energizing. Why? Like other pioneering entrepreneurs, he combines ambition, optimism, fortitude, resilience and confidence. At the other end of the spectrum, however, you find entrepreneurs whose personalities prevent them from capitalizing on the opportunities that all economic crises create.

Paul F., 37, owns several high-end fitness centers in the Baltimore-Washington area. (I’ve changed his name and other identifying details here.) Paul was looking to add locations, as prime real estate was plentiful and affordable and construction costs were low. But his customers – mostly white-collar professionals — were cutting back or searching for work. If he built, would they come? Paul couldn’t make up his mind, and as a result his expansion plans were going nowhere.

This would be a tough call for any business owner. For Paul, however, there was more to the problem than calculating risk and ROI. A champion high school and college athlete, he felt that the initial leap from sports to business was trivial.

“I train hard and play to win,” he told me during our first consultation. “This field just uses different muscles.”

Paul had no trouble making tough decisions before the recession. Why was this decision different? The economic crisis brought out the powerful dread of weakness that lurked beneath his muscular bravado. Where did it come from? When Paul was seven years old, his father, a successful Ivy League-educated financier, suffered a debilitating mental breakdown. Feeling sad, betrayed and angry, Paul vowed never to become like his dad.

Problem is, you can’t try not to be like somebody (psychoanalysts call this “disidentification”) without always keeping that person in mind. When Paul tried to be decisive and powerful, he was actually trying not to feel weak and stuck — the way he felt when his father collapsed. In sports, relationships and business, that impulse drove him to create artificial crises in which he could make decisions that would help him feel powerful. In this case Paul faced a real economic crisis and a real opportunity, and he didn’t know what to do.

This story ends well: Paul mustered the strength to acknowledge his weakness and reach out for professional help. By the way, don’t underestimate how hard this is. Confronting unconscious obstacles, then changing patterns and responses, is seriously tough.

My Recommendation: Remember that not all your business to-dos are about doing; understanding why is equally essential. Next time you’re at the proverbial crossroads, think about what I’d be asking you: What’s really happening here, and why?

Oh, and Paul’s fitness center business? He decided to expand.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in theBoswell Group, a consulting firm.

The art of the layoff

(Fortune Small Business) – How many employees have you let go this year? This month? How many more will you have to lay off next month?

U.S. companies with fewer than 50 employees shed 904,000 jobs during the first four months of 2009, according to the ADP National Employment Report. Being laid off is unquestionably a shocking psychological and financial event, but it can be just as traumatic for the business owners who must execute these difficult decisions.

Few entrepreneurs launch businesses with the goal of playing God. In fact, many leave corporate careers precisely because they want to regain a degree of ethical autonomy. So the experience of causing pain or destruction, rather than being an engineer of progress, can be devastating for them. Take Rebecca, 44, owner of a high-end stationery business in New York City. Like many business owners, Rebecca has beenforced to cut payroll as her market contracts.

Recently Rebecca phoned me on the eve of what she called “the next round of bloodletting.” (I’ve changed certain biographical details to protect the privacy of Rebecca and her employees.) Her distress was evident in her voice.

“It kills me that I have to do this,” she managed to say. “Tomorrow I’m going to have to tell three wonderful people they don’t have jobs anymore. Tom and Andr have worked for me for 10 years. Patty is a single mom. Since her brother lost his job in February, she’s been taking care of his two kids as well. What will happen to them, and why do I have to do this?”

Rebecca knew the answer: because the survival of her business depends on it.

In corporate America, layoffs tend to proceed with cold efficiency. The CEO sends out a companywide e-mail, no doubt crafted and vetted by legal and HR, explaining the need to “realign costs” with the company’s strategic goals. Managers then call the victims in for a brief closed-door meeting before security guards escort them from the building.

But for entrepreneurs like Rebecca, whose work environments tend to be intimate and familylike, cutting employees can feel like losing a limb.

Layoffs register high on the entrepreneur’s emotional Richter scale, with aftershocks often taking as severe a toll as the initial event. Business owners commonly experience sleeplessness, depression and the recurrent replaying of events and decisions.

So how do you survive layoff trauma without coming apart? There’s no universal solution, but the following five-point prescription should cover most situations.

Click through for Dr. Stein’s survival guide.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group, a consulting firm.