Ask Mal: Two attributes you need, and a lesson on changing people to perform better

‘Ask Mal’

Editor’s note: Mal Mixon, former chairman of Invacare Corporation and a well-known entrepreneur, will regularly share his business advice and experience with Smart Business readers. Ask him a question at [email protected], and your inquiry could be the inspiration for his next column.

Q: If you had to pick two qualities an entrepreneur needs to succeed, what would they be?

A: Optimism is one. A real entrepreneur to me never seems to get down. Entrepreneurs always see the positive side of everything.

The second quality is determination. They just try and try and never allow a negative event to stop them. They keep going and going. Here’s a joke I would like to tell you.

A father had two sons, one a pessimist and the other an optimist. He thought he had to cheer up his pessimistic son, and kind of dampen his optimistic son. So for Christmas, he bought the first son the fanciest computer and software he could find. But the son was very disappointed with the gift. It wasn’t the latest in his mind, and he found everything wrong with it.

For the second son, the father took some horse manure, put it in a box with a red bow around it and placed it under the Christmas tree. The optimistic son opened the present, and disappeared into the pasture for half an hour. Finally, he came running into the house, and he put his arms around his father’s neck, and said, ‘Daddy I can’t thank you enough for my Christmas present?’ The father said to his son, ‘How can you get excited about horse manure?’ The boy said, ‘Daddy, I know there has to be a horse around here somewhere!’

The point here is that no matter how bad things get, an entrepreneur is optimistic. Entrepreneurs are determined and won’t take no for an answer. They keep coming back and are almost impossible to get down.

Q: How do you get a talented but unmotivated employee to perform better?

M: I would like to say you can change people, and I have attempted it over the years, but I have never been able to change anyone. As hard as I have tried, I found it difficult to change a person’s weaknesses. You are better off concentrating on their strengths rather than trying to get the person to change.

Management generally spends too much time working on employee weaknesses. Time is better spent emphasizing the positive and nurturing employees who can really perform.

I call motivation ‘fire in the belly.’ You either have it or you don’t, and you develop it early in life. A lot of people may be very bright, but they are not competitive. At the first sign of blood, they turn the other way. It is more important that you have this mental toughness and motivation than just sheer ability.

If you think you can or you think you can’t, you are probably correct.

Secondly, most people in business succeed because they have great people skills. The important thing to realize in business is that you are not a one-person band; you are part of a team. You only win when the team wins. If you can’t fit in with people, and you can’t get the team to do anything, you’re going to fail in your job.