Thursday, January 26, 2012

Another gem from Plain Dealer's "My Biggest Mistake" - Learning from a rapid international expansion

The Plain Dealer's "My Biggest Mistake" series by Marcia Pledger is the best resource for mistake stories anywhere, and should be regular reading for anyone who visits this site. This story is from Sudarshan Sathe, CEO of New Concepts, Inc., a Solon, Ohio, company that provides products and services to the steel industry.

A couple of years after I started a metals brokering company that caters to the steel industry, business took off. I was driving to Canada every week and flying to London several times a year.

I made the mistake of opening offices in those countries -- even though they were one-person operations -- so I could better serve customers in those markets. I thought that there would be active growth in those markets beyond what we were already doing and that failed to materialize.

The problem was I'm a hands-on manager and I was not able to properly manage the people in offices so far away. Infrequent phone calls and technology just isn't the same as face-to-face conversations. Managing is a two-way street. With offices so far away, I didn't get to interact with them and learn from them either. Those far-away offices could not connect with the rhythm and flow of the main office. The loss of that kind of connection was the cause of failure....

As always, I consider any difficulty to be a cause for self-examination. I did a lot of introspection. Then I realized I had to close the Canadian office, which I did after two years and the London office after nearly four years.

When you make a mistake you have to come face to face with yourself and see what part of your personality made it possible. I learned I like to be personally involved with the work. I'm not the type of person who can be a hands-off manager. It's a small operation and I have a certain way of doing things, which worked. I wanted to see it continue. But I had to find a new way to grow. And I knew I had to do it closer to home.

In 2008, I bought a well-established company in the wastewater treatment field.

But after my experience of trying to operate satellite offices in London and Canada, even Eastlake seemed too far [25 miles] away. Despite the expense, I moved the five-employee company to Solon, where my other company is located.

Mistakes in business or in life emanate from you. The challenge is to recognize them and work on correcting those within you. As an Indian philosopher has said, "The world is a mirror. What you see in the world is your own reflection."

Note that Sathe never points fingers at anyone but himself. This shows a sense of agency and ownership that will serve him well. He also learned from his international experience, and put that learning into practice when he invested in moving his acquired company so he could spend more time with its team face to face.

Mistakes you will make. They will cost you. But taking accountability for them, learning from them, and applying that learning will repay you handsomely.

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