From a heartbreaking bankruptcy in 1991 to the founding of Omega Insurance Services in 1996 and its eventual sale in 2003 for $20 million, Tim Fargo has a lot of stories to tell when it comes to both failure and success. His current project is the wildly successful startup Social Jukebox, which has been featured in Forbes and Entrepreneur.

Tim’s book, Alphabet Success, distills his adventurous spirit and knowledge into fun digestible chunks full of concrete advice you can use immediately. “GHI (Getting Highly Inspired)” is a chapter from Alphabet Success and is published here with his permission.

 

If you can’t get excited about your business, then how on earth can you expect anyone else to be? If you’re not excited by what you’re doing, then you won’t be motivated and if you’re not motivated, you’re never going to be able to power up the people around you. In order for this to work, it’s going to involve you Getting Highly Inspired.

Theodore Roosevelt used to say “People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives.” Don’t fall into the trap of becoming a donkey driver, plodding towards your goal at the same speed as the long-suffering beasts of burden you drive along with you. All too many people fall into the trap of doing a job because they allow the daily drudge to block out their dreams.

Never let that happen to you.

Make sure you know what fires you up because you want to be racing ahead of the front of the pack, not rounding up the rear grumbling and waving the whip.  Now this is going to sound a little strange, but hear me out before you judge me. Once upon a time, I used to occasionally drive to a Ferrari dealer just to sit in the black leather bucket seats and look out over a curving fire-engine red bonnet. It made me more excited about the possibilities of Omega.

You’re probably thinking that makes me a little sad or at least an overgrown schoolboy.

Well, let me tell you a little more.

We are all motivated by different hopes and dreams, but a lot of us make it through life without real clarity about what we want. Oh sure, if we’re pressed we say a little more money might be nice but it’s all a bit vague.

Listen to a few of those interviews with lottery winners – when they’re asked what they intend to do with the money, 90% of them reply that they’re going to pay off the mortgage, settle the credit cards, go on a holiday and, erm, well it runs out there because that’s as far as they’ve thought about the subject.  And these are the ones who now have all that money in their hands.

For Getting Highly Inspired, I recommend:

  1. Using symbols to inspire you,
  2. But never confusing the symbol for what it stands for.

In order to better understand what I mean, consider the following two stories.

The Ferrari


Like I said at the beginning, I have honestly wanted to be rich since I was a boy. I seriously admired the amount of freedom that the people I knew with money seemed to enjoy. In order to help motivate me to reach that freedom, I used to pay a monthly visit to a Ferrari dealership in Saint Petersburg and sit behind the wheel of a 348. I would imagine myself cruising through town in it with my wife by my side and the wind in our hair. Then, with that motivation in mind, I sat down with an Excel spreadsheet to work out exactly how much money I would need to be able to afford that set of wheels.

If you think you’ve guessed the end of that story you’re probably wrong. I never did buy the Ferrari because when I had made the money I enjoyed the freedom not to go for a symbol that costs more than most homes. The point was never that car – it was the motivation it represented.  It was a symbol, and it’s important not to confuse the symbol with what it stands for.

Mexico

Another story of what makes me tick dates back to a six month trip I took to Mexico. I found myself in Oaxaca at Monte Alban – the site of a great ceremonial centre built on a flattened mountain top by the Zapotec people. I’d had the time to scuttle around all day exploring the place and was now resting in the shade, exhausted but happy.  At which point the tour buses turned up and from them poured throngs of pensioners.  Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the pensioners and am deeply impressed that they spent their time visiting such sites at all but there was no way, given their fitness level or their time schedule that they could see the site. Instead they essentially disembarked, trudged to the centre of the site, and were packed back onto the bus.

Now there’s nothing uncommon in that scene, but it provided me with an epiphany. No way was I going to wait for my golden years to see the world. No way was I going to toil my whole life and count on packing in what makes life worthwhile into the years left to me when I had finished serving a career, a boss, or some other company.

So there you have it – a combined motivation to get the good things in life (and an awareness of the math behind getting there), plus an absolute determination to get what I wanted in time to enjoy it while the enjoying was good.

Which is why when I started Omega, the goal was always to grow it as fast as humanly possible (or inhumanly, I wasn’t bothered) – and then sell it. It sounds simple, but most people starting a company do so for a whole heady cocktail of reasons including interest in that line of work, pride, self-fulfillment, lack of other choices, you name it.  Even the ones that think they want to sell out fast have rarely put together the exact goal (How fast? How much?) or the spreadsheet that shows them how to get there. That was what a Florida Ferrari dealership and a Mexican trip did for me, and for a long time, I kept a picture of the 348 in the top drawer of my desk just to remind me.

And just to make life interesting, I had a terrible credit rating (that filing for bankruptcy in 1991 sure didn’t help) and was going to have to beg and borrow my business off the ground. But if you have the commitment you will keep going forward and the curious thing is that if other people sense that you are that clear about your motivation, they start lining up to come with you for the ride – partners, staff, and yes, even bank managers all actually want to run with leaders, not trudge with the donkey drivers.

If you have the drive, you apply a little creativity, and you have nothing to lose, the most amazing things can happen.  In some cases I found the best thing to do was simply to look people in the eye and tell them straight, “I may not be the quickest to pay you, but you will be paid.”

And without fail, they were.

So the first stage is definitely to fix on what it is that makes you tick and then use that to fire yourself up. That then gets you to the second stage which is to get others to believe in you and want to run the race with you. Which might even be all you need. But just to be sure of success, there’s another stage – helping your people find what fires them up because once you’re all shooting for the stars that’s when the fireworks really begin.

Pretty much everybody wants to make their lives better. It’s just that like those lottery winners, a lot of people get stuck into thinking that doing better means reaching for the next rung up the company ladder instead of thinking about which direction they want to climb. So make it part of your role to mentor people, which means going beyond showing them how better to do the job you gave them and thinking more keenly about how their own self-development is going to get them where they’d like to go.

That’s the key to inspirational leadership.

If you treat people like work machines, you get a workplace full of tools. If you treat them to think and grow, you will get a workplace full of fired up staff who can take your company to places maybe you hadn’t even thought of yourself yet. It all starts with asking a simple question – ask people what makes them tick; what their goals are. Listen carefully to the answers because if everyone just says what they think you want to hear then it doesn’t mean you’ve chosen them well, it might mean they’re not thinking for themselves. If they aren’t running with you because that’s where they want to go, then no matter what they say, they won’t be truly on board with your projects.

Does that sound like risky advice? Encouraging your staff to think about what they want to get out of this (ad)venture for themselves?

Well, it shouldn’t be. Not if you know exactly what it is you are after yourself. People respond well to managers who stop being bosses and start being leaders. They go the extra mile if they genuinely believe that your success is their success and vice versa. It’s a classic hallmark of the insecure boss to be afraid of encouraging staff to think and dream for themselves. It might have worked for nineteenth century mill owners, but these days if you are dedicated to following your dream you will almost certainly need other inspired people around you to help fuel and fulfill that vision. Of course, it could just turn out that as you start to ask the question you find that you don’t have the sort of people you want to have working for you. The simple truth is that it’s better to find out now, and know what has to be done about it than to carry on driving donkeys. Don’t settle for second best, don’t let anyone else think that’s what you’re doing, and don’t let them settle for anything but their dreams either.

Do Try This At Home

Pencil in daily time for each person who reports to you directly.

If you’ve got your motivation sorted, you should be an inspiration in any case so why not expose others to it. Give staff real time to talk about what they want to do instead of just calling them in when things go wrong or you’re about to drop something new into their workload. For those that you can’t meet one on one with every day, think about weekly, or at a pinch, even quarterly meetings dedicated to performance development and make it clear that these are not blame sessions but a chance to discuss how things can be better.

Curious about Tim Fargo’s thoughts on the rest of the alphabet?

 

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