A lesson in the importance of being earnest

One of my favorite plays is The Importance of Being Earnest. Written by Oscar Wilde, it is a witty, fun spirited play that delivers an important message.

The plot centers on two friends who carry on secret lives—one in the city and one in the country. Each assumes the name of Ernest during his escapades, and each manages to capture the affections of a woman who insists on marrying a man named Ernest (note the spelling difference from the title). The story follows their adventures, and after several strange and humorous twists, the characters achieve their desired ends.

Such stories provide valuable emotional fuel. They show us—sometimes in a humorous fashion—that success is possible, that our dreams can become a reality.

No long term goal—including building a small business— is easily achieved. Many obstacles and challenges must be overcome. Sometimes the odds may seem overwhelming and success seems like a distant and impossible outcome.

We might feel frustrated, or even depressed, but if we wish to achieve our goals we must press on. We must continue to do the things that will lead to success. That is the importance of being earnest.

The culture of your small business

Company culture could be defined as the character of your business. It is the spirit that emanates in your words and actions. You, as the owner of your small business, define your company’s culture.

A company culture that stresses efficiency, customer satisfaction, and pride in the work performed will attract a certain kind of employee. A company culture that tolerates mediocrity, sloth, and apathy will attract another kind of employee.

You communicate your company culture in myriad ways, many of them subtle and implicit. Certainly, explicit statements regarding policies, procedures, and plans can communicate your company culture. But the real demonstration of that culture occurs in your actions.

For example, if you complain about customers to your employees, you send a certain message. If you are apathetic about customer complaints, you send a certain message. If you are late for appointments and your paperwork is messy, you send a certain message. If your words are different from your actions, your message is confusing and hypocritical. All of these things and more establish and communicate your company’s culture.

You begin communicating your company culture to employees from the very first contact. The wording of an employment ad, your manner of interviewing, and your hiring process all communicate your expectations and your willingness to hold individuals accountable.

If you wish to attract and retain competent employees then you must act with competence. If you want to attract motivated employees then you must create an atmosphere that encourages efficiency and pride. If you want to attract loyal employees, then you must act with loyalty and consistency.

In short, if you want a certain kind of employee, it is up to you to build the kind of business that will allow him to flourish. You must create the kind of business that will appeal to him. And this culture must permeate every aspect of your business, particularly your policies and procedures.

Celebrate your small business successes

I will admit to liking cigars. There is nothing quite so decadent as sitting on my deck, listening to the water fall in my pond while enjoying a fine cigar. I take that back. There is nothing quite so decadent as sitting on my deck, listening to the water fall in my pond while enjoying a fine cigar and sipping Scotch.

I believe that it was John D. Rockefeller who said that what this country needs is a good 10 cent cigar. Times have certainly changed, because now it’s hard to find a bad cigar for under $2.

Incidentally, the phrase “close, but no cigar” comes from carnivals “back in the day”. Cigars were often a prize at some of the games, and if someone almost won they were told “close, but no cigar”.

Sometimes close is good enough. Sometimes close represents a great success. For example, suppose you want to grow your small business by 20% one year. You map out a plan and implement it with diligence. However, your growth falls slightly short—let’s say 18%.

Some may consider this a failure. After all, you fell short of your goal. I think this is an absurd position—you did in fact grow your business by 18% and that is an accomplishment. To ignore the success and focus on the small shortcoming is to ignore the context.

It is rare that someone sets an ambitious goal and accomplishes it completely within the designated time frame. To focus on that “failure” simply undermines the actual success. So, I say that you should set ambitious goals. If you get close, have a cigar. And if you don’t like cigars, you can send one to me.

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