What I remember most about the economic meltdown that struck in the fall of 2008 was how many people held on to the belief that it was just another Wall Street dip that would self-correct in a few months…a year, tops.
In the final months of 2008, as I spoke and wrote about my perception that this was a deep structural shift that would take years—maybe even a generation—to turn around, I sometimes felt like a voice crying out in the wilderness.
At some point, others began writing and talking about the “new normal.” But in the beginning, people didn’t want to hear what I was saying. Believing this economic tsunami could lay us low for as long as five years and that it was something permanent—that was my early prediction—was way too scary for most people, especially the business owners who were my main concern.
And here we are, five years later.
When the news isn’t good, nobody likes hearing what prophets have to say. So I want to start by saying my prophecy (my mother would say that seems a bit lofty) for the next five years reflects hope for and confidence in private enterprise.
In a nutshell, here’s my take on business ownership, five years after the meltdown: We have become more valuable owners with every hard-earned lesson. Businesses that have adapted and survived will grow in health and value as assets, because they are driven by seasoned survivors in the owners’ seats. Wiser owners will mean a healthier economy in the years ahead.
Over the last five years, I’ve walked with business owners through the harshest conditions I’ve seen in my 20 years with private enterprise. The challenges are far from over. On a recent morning, I was in deep conversation with seven owners before 8 a.m.—and that’s typical. I am with them all day, often until late in the evening. That’s the reality of this economy that lives with the tension of the promise of Wall Street versus the daily volatility of Main Street.
What’s different today is that mature owners are less likely to react to the issues of their enterprises from a place of fear. Today, wise owners face their challenges proactively, from a place of clarity and determination. They have a healthier respect for calculating the lifeblood resources of their enterprises, a keen sense of priorities, and a deep appreciation for the relationships that have held up to the test of these times.
Here are the lessons every business owner should take to heart as we continue our march to the new reality:
Equity knowledge. Wise owners treat their equity as if it were an investment and are committed to the practices and structures that protect equity health. Ask yourself: Am I a wise steward of the equity of this business I own?
Structure strategy. Owners who have survived have developed innovative structures. The focus is on new structures that spawn creativity and collaboration, build trust, reach across boundaries to tap resources, and meet the needs of players who are its best thinkers and executers.
Self-knowledge. If there’s one thing owners have in common, it is blind spots. From my vantage point, the greatest leaks in business wealth opportunity occur at these owner blind spots. Survivors have examined themselves for their strengths, their weaknesses, their gifts, and their calling.
Adaptability. From being open to joyful discoveries in these uncertain times—to the very practical aspects of recalibrating not only our business models, our margins and our procedures, but ourselves—adaptability must be integrated into the DNA of every enterprise and its owner. Part of being adaptable is to recognize that when it comes to change, everything is on the table. Everything. Adaptation must be a continuous discipline, integrated into the rhythm of the business.
My prediction? The next five years offer a significant wealth opportunity for owners who have captured the lessons of humility and tenacity and continuous learning as valuable equity for their businesses. We’re stronger at our core than we were five years ago and we’ll need every bit of that strength to sustain healthy adaptation in an era of continuous disruption.
Yes, it’s time to celebrate. We’ve survived. But this is not a recovery. This is a new era.