The Five Senses for Small Business Success

The Five Senses for Small Business Success
What a basketball coach can teach SBOs about how to survive and succeed

I’ve been hearing an awful lot about Providence College’s new basketball coach lately. Maybe it’s because my husband is a Providence College alum and therefore highly invested in the day-to-day events of their athletic program. Maybe it’s because Coach Cooley has already attracted a top-5 nationally-recognized recruiting class for next year on the strength of his reputation and personality, in turn attracting the attention of the national sports press.

Either way, Ed Cooley is clearly not just an effective coach, but a great inspiration for those of us who plug away at our beloved small businesses. Here, I’ll share how five of Coach Cooley’s methods apply to the way we operate—the “five senses” we need to have in our businesses at all times.

A Sense of Loyalty

When most people talk about Ed Cooley, they can’t help but share his story, and it’s a great one. He grew up in Providence, one of nine children, his mother on welfare. He sought stability with a local family, Gloria and Eddie Searight, and was taken in. Today, the Searights are part of his story and he freely shares the credit for his success with them. As he returns to Providence, he honors them—not as a PR strategy, but with simplicity, sincerity and gratitude.

As small business owners, we often work alone, but many people help us in our businesses: family, friends, colleagues, clients. Having a sense of loyalty is integral to our success—we won’t get far if we forget where we came from. Take the time to honor your roots and thank those who help you.  Remember, even though you’re working alone, you’re not alone in the world. Keeping in contact is not only good for the soul, it’s sound business practice—your next lead or project is more likely to come from someone you’ve worked with in the past!

A Sense of Community

The Midnight Madness practice at Providence College is a huge event which opens the basketball season.  With thousands of fans and students screaming at the top of their lungs, the brand new Coach Cooley took the stage for his first-ever official appearance before the Providence College community.  And the first words that came out of his mouth were, “How ‘bout our hockey team?!”

It turns out that the hockey team had opened their season at home the night before with a sizzling win against Hockey East rival Boston University. Right at that moment, Coach Cooley let everyone know he isn’t just about basketball. He is about all sports, all students, and all the successes of the Providence College community. He is about celebrating excellence, wherever it happens.

We, too, need to cultivate this sense of community. We have to look up from our laptops once in a while. When we’re working to stay afloat in a tough economy, it’s easy to forget there’s a world beyond us.  Times are tough all around, but there are always ways to get involved in the community and expand your network. If you’ve cut back on financial contributions, can you spare some time to mentor students who are studying to go into your field, or serve on the board of a nonprofit organization?  Is there any work you’re willing to do pro bono, or do you have extra product stock just gathering dust that could be put to good use somewhere as a donation?

I’m not saying to give away all your services for free, of course, but when your business is a part of the community, people sit up and take notice.  You also win the benefit of gathering valuable information about what your clients and customers need.  And for that you will reap untold rewards.

A Sense of Standards

Because he is about excellence, there are a few things Coach Cooley is not cool with, especially when it comes to his team. Like lateness. Bad grades. Sloppiness. He requires his team members to meet him for breakfast at 7:30 every morning so he knows they’re up and ready for their morning classes. Now, I am the furthest thing from a morning person (hence my company name, 3am Writers) but I would hop right out of my hard-earned bed to go to a breakfast like that. Talk about a shot in the arm to get your day started!

A sense of standards means you give your best and that you expect the best of others. You must have standards—for your own work, for your staff, and for your clients. Make roles and expectations clear for staff and colleagues. Develop standards and practices for your business. When everyone knows the rules, they’re more comfortable working within them. It’s when expectations are unclear that everything tends to go off the rails. Value yourself and others by expecting the best.

That goes for your clients, too. Create a contract and charge a rate for your services that allows you to be successful. Then earn that rate with excellence. For your best work, you deserve fair payment and respect. The sense of standards goes both ways—you deserve to work with clients who share your values, because that’s why you struck out on your own in the first place, right?

A Sense of Flexibility

Some celebrated coaches are so wedded to their styles that their careers follow a familiar cycle: Develop a style. Lose with the style. Get fired because of the losses. Continue to adhere to the style. Get another chance. Win with the style. Get famous for the style. Write books about the style and make a mint on speaking fees. Lose with the style. Get fired. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Coach Cooley is quoted as saying, “There’s not one way or one style—we want to have a winning style.”  So he may have his own beliefs and personality and way of doing things, but he will allow his style to evolve. Along the way, he will work to understand and develop each of his players’ skills. Having a style that evolves to allow for different skill sets is what truly creates a winning style, as the PC team’s surprisingly robust current record will show.

Most small business owners learn quickly that flexibility is a must in our environment. I’ve held staff interviews in my driveway while my home office was going haywire from a power surge and I’ve gotten clients at the playground with kids in tow. I’ve grown my business steadily through an ever-changing life, by cultivating flexibility on a daily basis.

What Coach Cooley is suggesting is not easy to attain. For us to exercise this level of flexibility, it means to seek others’ perspectives and ask for advice. It means to work with different personalities to get the job done well for our clients. Sure, we are the boss, but in the end, we’re working for a common goal—success—and there are plenty of ways to get there. It’s what we need to thrive as small business owners: a flexible style that allows for many styles to come together.

A Sense of Humor

If you have a moment (and I know you do, or else you wouldn’t be reading this article instead of working), check out the first few seconds of a Providence College video introducing Coach Cooley. Students dance down the halls à la Glee, accompanied by a Dominican friar with white robes flying (and really, is there anything more deliciously irreverent and fun than that?).  They lip sync in formation until they come to a screeching halt at the towering figure of Coach Cooley, who stares them down to the theme music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Disclaimer: No college basketball stars were harmed in the making of this video.

Coach Cooley asks a lot of his team, but he does so with a caring attitude and a sense of humor.  And a sense of humor is essential to keeping our spirits up in any small business. It’s not easy for us SBOs. We’re making up half the business that gets done in the U.S., but we’re still treated like the little guy. Like Rodney Dangerfield, we “get no respect.” But that’s why we’ve got to have fun doing what we do. We’ve got to laugh. Nobody ever cried their way to success (well, I’ll admit I do my share of crying—it’s cathartic! But I laugh much more).

Sadly, there is only one Coach Cooley.  Few of us are lucky enough to have someone to jolt us out of bed for breakfast each morning or remind us to do our daily flexibility calisthenics.  Sometimes our jokes are for an audience of one.  That’s why at the end of the day, these five senses are essential to keeping our small business alive and well—and scoring the three-point shots that remind us why we love this crazy SBO life in the first place.

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