Business lessons I learned at my mother’s knee

My mother was a great businesswoman. She made it clear to me from my early childhood that it was accepted and fashionable for women to not only be in business, but also to succeed in business. She was self-taught from ninth grade to college, and it took her 53 years to get to that point. During that journey, she read voraciously on every subject that could influence the growth of our family’s business. Her library card was her most prized possession.

Mother, at 66 years old, entered Lake Forest College and finally realized her dream of a real college education as she graduated summa cum laude with her degree in English at 70 years old. What an example she set, and what a hard act to follow! So here I am, almost 15 years after her funeral, still thinking of all the things she taught me through the years that help us every day in my own family business.

I have been reflecting on some of my mother’s “business motherisms.” Let me share a couple with you.

“Appreciate what you have.” When she was growing up her family had little free cash, so her firm belief in literacy led her to the library. When she and my dad were building their business, she learned to write advertising copy, do the books, set up files, and more through library books. Reading meant everything to her. As she aged — she was 94 ½ when she died — her hearing was failing, but she often remarked that as long as she could see to read a good mystery book, she could face anything.

“Impossible only means it will take a bit longer then planned.” Now, we live in an instant gratification society. Between instant credit and no money down, most of us can see something we like and take it home today. In mother’s world they had to work and save before spending.

“You can’t see the future through a rear-view mirror.” Thinking about the “what ifs,” the “shouldas,” and “why didn’t I” doesn’t work. You can only do your best for what you can do in the future. Instead of focusing on what didn’t get done right, get rid of the rear-view mirror and look for ways to measure what can be accomplished today, tomorrow, next week, or next year.

“The first step is always the hardest so just get started and it will come.” This is kind of like “Build it and they will come.” Sometimes it’s difficult to get a new business idea off the ground, but this old theory works. The first step, the getting started, is really the hardest. Once that hurdle is past it becomes easier, thoughts begin to flow, and good ideas become reality. I think many of us run into that kind of stop sign that just gets in the way, but I’m happy to say that this motherism works — just get started and it will come.

“Accept the fact that nothing is certain and no decision is perfect.” This is especially hard for those with control issues, who like to make a plan and see it happen just the way it’s imagined. Mother demonstrated during her years as an entrepreneur that success is best achieved when goals are clear, but you have to be flexible about how to reach those goals. Sometimes plans have to be changed, but the ultimate goals remain constant.

“When a decision is made, set a finish date, so procrastination can’t interfere.”When a time and date are in writing, getting to that goal takes priority over everything else. Mother had a goal of reading her entire 4,500-volume personal library while she could. I’m not sure she completely accomplished that goal, but she sure had a good time on the journey.

The Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Awards Dinner is coming up on Thursday, May 3 at Monona Terrace. This is an annual tribute to Wisconsin family businesses and always features interesting and inspiring stories from all the nominees. As usual, this year’s nominees will have more stories to teach us. I can’t wait to hear and learn from these unique, colorful, and very inspiring stories. Come and see for yourself!

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What does it even mean to 'act your age'?

Not too long ago, I was preparing for a business trip. In need of a certain cosmetic, I made a trip to a well known retailer in town. While I was looking at all the possibilities, and also trying to find another item, an associate stopped to ask if I needed help — good so far. 

When I described what I was looking for, she told me the product had been discontinued. Noticing my disappointment, she then suggested that I should ask my child or grandchild to “look it up on the computer. You know, the computer.” She must have taken my astonished look as permission to go on to describe what can be found online if one knows how to search. Honestly, I was so taken aback that I could barely find words to tell her that I am computer literate and I can certainly do my own searching. When I finally did tell her, she said, “Good for you honey.” The insult to my ability to function in the digital age stung. I’ve been thinking about this since that shopping, thank you very much.

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