I’m thinking back to the tough decisions I’ve made since starting my consulting firm 10 years ago this month. You know the decisions I’m talking about — the ones that kept me awake at night, made me stress to the point of having headaches, and that tried my friends’ and colleagues’ patience when I called them at midnight to talk about it…
You know what I’ve decided? In the end, in every case where I simply followed my first instinct, I made the right call. Every time — never an exception — I did the right thing. It always worked out great. I never lost a client because I did what my heart and head told me. Even when I lost a great fee, something else always came along to make up for it. When my head and heart told me I should fire someone, it turned out to be the absolute right thing to do.
When I zigged while others zagged, it worked out great — as long as I trusted and followed my instinct. In 10 years, I have never made the wrong decision — for me.
And that’s the key — “for me.” Someone else might have decided to do the exact opposite of what I did — and they would have been just as “right” as I was. As you launch or grow your consulting practice, the most challenging decisions you will have to make are those where you know in your gut what you should do — but you find yourself pulled in a different direction. As a consultant and business owner, the need to be true to oneself will be tested time and again.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I’m perfect and that every instinct I acted upon worked out the way I planned. That’s not the point. The point is that when I let my instincts guide my actions, even when things went awry, I was still glad in the end that I acted in a manner consistent with my instinct.
For example, I once spent what for me was a tremendous amount of money chasing the idea of a web-based interactive fundraising system. I won’t say how much I spent, but it was enough that it hurt to write the checks. I really believed it was a great system that would truly benefit nonprofits of all sizes and — equally important — would make my firm some extra income (Okay, I’ll admit it. I thought it would make me wealthy beyond belief.)
It was a complete failure. I mean a total loss — not a single person ever paid a single dime to do anything on our website. I’m not even sure anyone ever visited the dang thing. All I’ve got to show for it is that I still own the domain name. That’s it. Probably the worst decision I’ve ever made in my professional life.
And you know what? Every time I think about it, I’m thankful I made it. I took a shot because I thought it would work. And I was wrong. But I’m brighter for having done it, and I won’t be left wondering whether it would have worked. Yes, it was the “wrong” decision — but if I’d never done it, I’d regret THAT a lot more than I regret the money and time I lost. And doing it was a helluva lot of fun.
In this business, you’re going to get pulled — and advised — to go against your instincts a lot. Your clients will want you to do something you know isn’t right for them. Some prospective client will propose something that sounds great, but deep down inside, you know it feels wrong. Your partner, or employee, will have what seems like a great idea, but it doesn’t just “sit” right with you. Believe me, you’ll succeed more, and do better, if you never do anything that feels wrong to you. “When in doubt … DON’T” is usually good advice.
Over the years I think my firm has grown as a result of determining what is right for us, based, in large part, on what I think is right for me. In some of these cases, what I thought was right was in direct contradiction to the “industry standard.” For example, we don’t do “confidential interviews” in campaign feasibility studies anymore. We don’t limit the number of interviews we do in a study. We don’t even think about hourly fees. We actually spend our own money to fly anywhere in the U.S. to provide a free workshop for any organization considering a campaign — with no obligation.
In each of these cases, other consultants, equally smart and often with better or more experience, were adamant that we were wrong to do any of these things. I heard “I would never do that” so many times that I thought I’d scream.
But with each deviation we made from the industry “norm,” things worked out just fine. I followed my instinct, and did what I thought was right for me — and the company. And you know what? The world did not end and neither did our company. Even those who disagreed with me still remained friends and associates. And I slept soundly knowing I had followed my own head and heart.
As you build your practice — whether for profit or for public service — you will face countless decisions that will, at the time, seem like major crossroads. Here’s my hint for the day: they aren’t really crossroads. You’ll do just fine no matter what you choose. You’ll sleep better doing what feels right … but even if you don’t follow your instincts, it’ll still work out.
There are entire books written on decision-making — there are even some great ones. I’m not suggesting that you shoot from the hip all the time, or refuse to ask for advice and guidance. I’m certainly not suggesting that you should be closed-minded or base decisions on fewer than all the facts.
I’m simply saying that — after all the advice, and investigation, and input — you should be unafraid to make the decision that feels right. If you are meant to be in this business (and some folks really aren’t meant to be), your instincts will serve you well.
We have that little voice in us for a reason — listen to it and trust it. If you do that, no matter what happens, you’ll have made the right decision.
Fare well, and farewell for this week.