Les Miserables, Life, Death And Small Business Ownership

November 3, 2009 by
Filed under: Profitable Growth 

Last night I saw my favorite play, Les Miserables, again.

In Victor Hugo’s epic story of good, evil, love and faith, the hero Jean Valjean saves the life of his nemesis, Inspector Javert. Javert had pursued him for years after Valjean steals bread to feed his family.

In the play’s defining moment, Javert cannot accept the truth of Valjean’s goodness and kills himself rather than accept that his institutional thinking was imperfect and flawed. Conversely, Valjean’s acceptance of grace and pursuit of truth saves his family, business and legacy.

And then I realized it. Recently, I witnessed a similar but far less dramatic example of two business owners confronted with truth. One took the right path after seeing the light. One did not.

The first business owner runs a good business that could be better. But there has always been distractions preventing the firm from achieving sustained profitable growth. The recession, the credit crunch, the family legacy, and an inflexible sales force have led to survival being an acceptable alternative to profitable growth.

We had discussed his objectives, action plan and progress towards profitable growth goals. Clearly there was a disconnect. His objectives were clear. His action plan was good. But his progress was insufficient.

Frustrated, he said to me, “It’s easy for you to focus on profitable growth, because you are a consultant. It’s different for me, I have to run a business!”

I asked him, “What other reason is there to run a business than to achieve profitable growth?”

He started to respond and said, “You are right. There is no other reason. And from this day forward my job description has changed. My job is profitable growth.”

The second business owner has run a very successful firm which has suddenly been slammed with an opportunity to double and triple sales. The phones are ringing. Internet inquiries are increasing. New distributors are eager to sell the company’s product.

Faced with runaway demand, the owner is swamped. She is out of her comfort zone and needs to bring in professional marketing, customer service and technology support. Yet, it seems daunting to her because it will force her to create a new organization and better processes.

She chose to pull back and continue to run the business in its traditional way, as it has always been done. Her opportunity to maximize profitable growth is taking a back seat to imperfect and flawed institutional thinking.

Business ownership may not be as dramatic as life and death during the French revolution.

But when it comes down to it, wouldn’t you rather be Jean Valjean whose vision of truth set him free that Javert whose slavery to tradition was his downfall?

Which would you choose? Share your thoughts with me.



2 Comments on Les Miserables, Life, Death And Small Business Ownership

  1. Anita Campbell on Thu, 12th Nov 2009 8:37 am
  2. Hi Andy,

    I can understand the temptation to want to do things “the old way.” The old way means safety — or so it seems.

    It’s scary to take risks in business. Easy to say with bravado, hard to do in everyday practice. There are so many unknowns. As a business owner, you have to take a deep breath and take the plunge — but it’s not easy when you know that one false step could take down your whole company.

    I guess we just have to keep reminding ourselves that the appearance of safety isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    – Anita

  3. Andy Birol on Thu, 12th Nov 2009 9:31 am
  4. Thanks, Anita.

    The moment that our pain of changing becomes less than our pain of not changing we all make the needed moves. It is just sad that for many business owners, our defining point has to be so painful, come too late or get missed altogether. As we move past this Great Recession, I hope we all see the new defining points as the old ones may not be the right ones any more. Onward!

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