My friend and business mentor, Alan, laughed last week when I reminded him of this story.
We sat down and broke bread for the first time in 15 years. Nearly 30 years ago, when I lived in Cleveland, I left the practice of law to start a business. My new "company" — which consisted of a telephone and me — recruited attorneys for law firms and corporations. I knew nothing about headhunting other than an article I read in a trade magazine that inspired me to try it.
So I left a comfortable, well-paying job to go into a less comfortable, even more competitive, high-risk field. I knew a lot about lawyers, but nothing about business, especially the business of recruitment.
Alan, on the other hand, started a search firm some 15 years earlier. He soon ran the largest management recruiting firm in the world, with hundreds of offices in many countries. Through the friend of a friend, Alan heard about me, and called me for lunch. Alan Schonberg, the chief executive officer of Management Recruiters International, the Warren Buffett/McDonald’s of search firms, wants to have lunch with me?
We sat down, and I immediately liked him. He liked me, and told me later that he saw great potential in me, provided I learned quickly and avoided mistakes. He taught me about recruiting, sales, hiring and firing, how to price services, accounting, bookkeeping and marketing. More importantly, he taught me that success in business, as in life, requires character, confidence, consistency, commitment and courage. "It’s a marathon, not a sprint," he told me repeatedly.
We met for lunch almost every month for the next 15 years. Alan usually called me, as I understood and respected the value of his time. We talked about business, life, the meaning of happiness, friends, family and faith. He emphasized the importance of hands-on business ownership and operation. As CEO of his company, Alan, through his extraordinary vision, work ethic and leadership, helped create hundreds of millionaire franchisees.
"What do you do all day?" I once asked him during one of our lunches.
"Take phone calls," he replied.
"My franchisees," he said.
"What do they ask about?"
"Anything and everything," Alan said.
"Yes, business, personal, marriages, whatever."
One day, during a recession, I called Alan. Business is terrible, I told him, and for the first time, I feel like giving up.
"Let’s go to lunch," said Alan.
I spent almost a half-hour complaining about declining revenues, difficult clients, higher costs, indifferent or unmotivated employees, the increased aggressiveness of my competitors, and many other things, major and minor. Alan listened in silence.
"And what else?" Alan asked.
I unleashed another volley of complaints, and then I asked him, "What should I do?"
"Take charge," Alan finally said.
"Take charge," he repeated.
"Yes, take charge. You’re too smart, too insightful and too driven not to know what’s gone wrong. So take charge."
"Such as?" I asked, wanting more specific advice.
Alan wouldn’t budge. He simply said again, "Take charge."
So I thought and thought about what he said. I got rid of an indifferent employee, who had deserved termination for a long time. I adjusted my prices. I told my landlord about my situation and negotiated a lower rent. I changed my employees’ compensation packages, adjusting the combination of base and commission. I long considered these steps, but procrastinated and lacked the guts to carry them out.
Business turned around. And it didn’t take long.
Alan called and asked to meet for lunch.
"I knew it," Alan said when I told him of my company’s improvement. "I knew that you knew what to do. You just needed a little push. Remember: character, confidence, consistency, commitment — and don’t forget the courage part."
I ran the business for some 15 years, but always with the intention of making enough money to again change courses and go into political and social commentary. While working at my company, I wrote op-ed pieces. Soon local newspapers began publishing them. This, in turn, led to an invitation as a guest on talk radio, and then to an invitation by the station owner to fill in for the host for a week. Long story short, I knocked on doors, made calls, made contacts, and — with a little luck — ended up getting an audition at the country’s first 24/7 all-talk radio station, located in Los Angeles, my hometown. I’ve been there ever since.
Alan takes pride and pleasure in my success as a businessman, a commentator and, more importantly, as a human being. Until I reminded him, he had forgotten the "take charge" story.
How does the adage go? When the student is ready, the teacher will come. Well, I guess I was ready. And I know that Alan came.