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Don’t Hold Yourself Back

My final note is based on many of the discussions I have with clients in our executive coaching programs. We train clients from all over the world. Some have no business background, but they’re in senior positions in major multinational companies. Others lead multibillion-dollar family-owned businesses in Asia and Latin America. Some are more mid-level. Others have worked their way up. They may not have an MBA, but they know what they’re doing.

I’m going to tell you a story that’s going to articulate a very important insight. When I lived in Toronto, I used to go to the Chinese markets, and I always went to the same store because I like to be familiar with the layout and know where things are. I like to know that the food I want will arrive on a certain day, so that I don’t make a trip on the wrong day and have to visit many different markets. So, I always went to the same place. It wasn’t the biggest, but it was very clean, and it was run by a little old lady, probably in her 70s. Unlike most markets, there wasn’t a lot of pricing on the products. For example, if you wanted fresh Chinese lemon or limes that arrived that day, she didn’t have time to put the price on it. But she’d be sitting on a stool in the back, and if you picked up something and showed it to her, she’d tell you the price. She knew the business very well.

One day, I went there to buy a certain type of crab from Thailand, but for some reason the brand I liked wasn’t available. There was another brand there, which was too expensive for me, so I didn’t want to buy it. I was going to leave and visit another store, and the lady asked me why I was leaving because I had always bought that product. I told her the prices were different, and it was too expensive. She asked how much I wanted to pay for it, I told her the price at the other place, and then she said I could take it for that price.

That store wasn’t very impressive. It was clean, but not very impressive. The old lady didn’t wear nice clothing. I think I saw her in the same brown outfit every time I visited the store. But there was a time when I was walking past her store in the evening, and I saw this stunning black Mercedes come out of the driveway. It was shiny, new and looked like it was well taken care of. It was a Mercedes S-Class, which is a top of the range Mercedes. As I’m admiring this car, I see who’s driving it, and it’s the little old lady. I was thinking to myself, it’s unlikely she has a business degree. It’s unlikely she’s been trained in business. But she knows enough about her business that she can change the prices when she talks to a customer and still make a profit, and she makes a good enough living that she drives an S-Class  Mercedes. If I had to speak to this lady the way I would speak to a fellow partner or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I’d probably confuse her. If I started talking about marginal cost curves, net profit margin, and elasticity, she’d be confused. I would be surprised if she knew what I was talking about, but she understands business.

This is the deep insight that I try to get all executive clients to understand. If you grew up in the West, if you grew up anywhere in the world that has money, you understand business. You know how to do a business deal; you know how to buy low, sell high; you know how cash flow works; you know how income statements work. It’s an intuitive thing for humans to understand business. What normally happens is that we start working with people and using training that speaks a different language from us, so that when we start using this resource and don’t understand what’s being told to us, we say that we don’t understand business—but that’s not true. You understand business, it’s just that you don’t understand the language this resource is using to interact with you.

Let’s say I have a background in physics. If I read a paper on thermodynamics and heat transfer in English, it would make perfect sense to me. But if I read that same paper in German, it wouldn’t make sense to me. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand physics; it just means I don’t understand German.

That is one of the biggest, most important insights that I try to pass on to executive coaching clients. If you don’t understand something, it’s not that you don’t understand business. Maybe you don’t understand the language that is being used to describe business in that particular case. The odds are very high that if the person you’re interacting with spoke the language of business that you spoke, you would understand it and get it very quickly. So, when I speak to executive coaching clients, when I do Monday Morning 8 a.m., I don’t use strategy terms and strategy terminology that I would use with someone who knows that language. I use a simplified language, but I’m still delivering the same insights.

As you go through life, and as you struggle to understand certain concepts, don’t think that you don’t understand business or leadership. You just don’t understand the language that is being used at that point in time. You shouldn’t feel bad about that. If you don’t understand the language, learn business or learn what you want to learn by finding someone who speaks your language, but the odds are very high that you do understand strategy, you do understand business and you do understand leadership. You shouldn’t feel bad if you need a translator every now and then.

At the end of the day, if you’re successful in business, that’s what makes you good at business. Whether you can talk about contribution margins, elasticity curves and all the fancy analysis we do means very little. It’s nice if you can do it, but it’s not why you’re learning about leadership and business. You’re learning to be a leader. Don’t hold yourself back if you face this obstacle.

This is an excerpt from Monday Morning 8 a.m. newsletter, issue #14. 

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