Earlier this year, I had dinner with the founder of one of my largest competitors. It was a unique opportunity that was arranged by a mutual customer and friend.
This man (my competitor) retired from his company a few years ago, but still served as the chairman of the board. He started his company about 10 years before I started mine, but he grew it to a size 40 times larger than mine. I had much to learn from him.
We spoke a lot about the early years of each of our businesses, of the challenges and successes. We also spoke a lot about "vision" and "values," and how important it was, and still is, to remain true to them. And we spoke a lot about the role of the leader to cast the vision and guide the company, making sure it stayed true to its values. But throughout the conversation, one topic threaded its way into almost every discussion – and that topic was why he started his company in the first place.
It’s very inspiring. He was a professor at a university in a mid-western state where the primary industry was, and still is, agriculture. Most of the students came from the region, but most left when they graduated because there was no opportunity for them to apply their education there. His initial goal was to start up a technology company that would create employment opportunities for the graduates, and then to continue growing the company through the talents and skills these graduates added. The company now employs 2,000 people.
I am fortunate to have been mentored by a number of great entrepreneurial leaders, and so often the story they tell is the same. They started their company for a specific reason, and that reason had little to do with any ambition for personal wealth. Most of them left behind solid employment situations, exchanging their careers for new careers that came with great financial uncertainty, offering little more than just the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Most were pursuing business objectives that their advisors and consultants thought were doomed for failure.
The other common theme among them was of failures and setbacks, and the resolve to persevere. Often the obstacles were so big and the setbacks so disheartening, it’s a wonder that they carried on at all. Some might suggest that fear of failure was the thing that kept them going, but I think it was something else. I think what kept each of them going in those dark times was that, as long as the dream was alive, regardless of how near-impossible it might seem, they were not going to quit and give up hope. Fear may push us to do things we otherwise might not do. Hope, however, pulls us in the direction of our dreams, and keeps us on track. The other difference between fear and hope is that fear often causes a company to plateau when things are going well, while staying focused on the dream always stimulates growth and opportunity.
The biggest take-away from the meeting with my competitor was the reminder that the dream has to be bigger than me, and it also has to be bigger than just the company’s success. His dream was to create technical, high value employment opportunities for people in his region. Another mentor’s dream was to leave the world a better place, environmentally, than he found it. The "experts" would all say that both of them had succeeded, but both of them would say that it’s still a work in progress. That’s the neat thing when our companies are founded in the pursuit of our dreams; the dreams can always propel us on to bigger and better things.
On the plane ride home, I had time to reflect on my own dreams and motivations. Are my dreams still big enough, and important enough, to drive me through difficulties, or to motivate me beyond the complacency that often comes with moderate success?
How about you? Are your dreams still big enough? Perhaps it’s time to think of bigger goals, or to remind ourselves why we started doing whatever it is we are doing in the first place.
Paul Hogendoorn is president of OES, Inc. of London, Ont., and past chair of the London Region Manufacturing Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.