August 1, 2013

Goals chart the road to success


There is a landscape contractor who lives south of me. I mentor him and have done so for six years. When he was an 18-year-old student, in the 1980s, he worked for me. One of the best I ever had. He left my garden centre for a life in the church, as a pastor. He stayed that course for 15 years and then decided he wanted a change. He wanted to open his own business. The only thing he knew was the landscape/garden centre business. He asked if I would assist him getting up and running as a landscape contractor.

The first thing we did was write out his mission statement, followed by a business plan. When I mentor someone, I always insist they write out a business plan, the guide for how they are going to achieve their goals. I insist they include within their business plan, specific goals. I do not accept “I want to turn a profit” as a goal. Why? Simple: If your revenue exceeds your expenses by even a dollar, then you have turned a profit. However, who can live on dollar? Who would call a dollar’s profit a success? Not many.

He was starting out as a one-man band, as many of us have done in the past. I kept his goal simple. In the first year, it was to complete $100,000 in work, with a profit margin of 30 to 40 per cent. He gulped. He had not yet carried out his first estimate and now I was assigning sales goals that he perceived as being over the top. I kept going. I included in his business plan, an additional $100,000 in sales each year, until year five, when he would complete $500,000 worth of work. He didn’t gulp this time, rather his eyes glazed over.

Years later, he told me when he returned home his wife asked, “How did your meeting with Rod go?” He could not remember anything I had said. All had been wiped out except for the words, “five hundred thousand.” That was all he could tell his wife, “five hundred thousand.”

This story has a happy ending. He made $100,000 in sales his first year and increased his sales by that amount each year until year five, when he punched through $600,000 worth of work. I was at his landscape yard this spring and asked him one question: If I had set a goal of $250,000 for him, would he have reached the $600,000 mark?

Good question. Some would suggest it is too hypothetical to answer. I am not one of those people. I believe in goals and I am adamant those goals be written down. Without written goals, you are engaging in a floating crap game of “maybe this, maybe that.”

My beloved mentor, Dieter Martin, insisted that all my goals and plans be written down. If I was planning a new greenhouse at the back of my property five years in the future, he wanted to see it sketched out on a master plan. He didn’t want to hear about it; he wanted to see it, pencil on paper. One day, I asked Dieter, “What is a plan before it is written down?” His response, “Until it is written down, you are only thinking out loud.”

I have never forgotten that and the other lessons the man taught me. Until I write it down, I am only thinking out loud. A plan commits me. A plan gives me direction. A plan provides me with a goal; and how can I measure my success unless I have surpassed my goals? If I build the greenhouse in my plan, then I have reached that particular goal and I can go on to set new ones.

Some people are afraid to write their goals or plans on paper. They feel that somehow this commits them to those issues and only those issues. Not true. Plans can be altered, amended, dropped or expanded. Goals do not lock us in, rather, they are our guide.
STORY #1: I was out for a bike ride one fine, fall day. I stopped at my favourite cappuccino shop in downtown Regina. They have a few benches outside to sit on, when the sun beats down, warming the soul. (Sorry. My Irish grandfather took over my writing fingers for a moment.) There were three of us enjoying the glorious, sunny Sunday afternoon.
One fellow says to the next. “Are you new in town?” The second fellow responds “Yes. I am the camera man on a feature film shoot.”

The first man says “Really? I wrote a feature film script.” The film man says “Great! I would love to read it.” The first man responds, “’s not really written down, just yet. It’s more of an idea.”

I love that story, albeit I had to eavesdrop to obtain it. It is the epitome of so many of life’s stories. “I wrote a film script but it’s not written down.” That line makes me laugh every time I read it. Back to my mentor’s sage advice: “Until it is written down, you are merely thinking out loud.”

How important is it that you write down your plans and goals? There have been several anecdotal studies done on this very question. (By the way, if you have heard of the often quoted Yale Study of Written Goals from 1953, that study is a giant myth. It never happened.) Around 1977, a friend I went to school with interviewed several successful business people. They were a real range. Some were the hand-shaking, back-patting, chatty types. Others were reserved, saying very little. Some were calculating and conservative, others were risk-taking personalities. The one thing they had in common was all of them were list makers. They wrote things down. They had goals and plans and they followed those plans. They were goal achievers.

In my own life, I have always been a list keeper. I have one on my desk right now. Writing this column is on that list, along with picking up the native ferns from the bus depot. I need that list. It keeps me organized. It prevents me from forgetting to do the things that are important because, as you know, when you are busy it is easy to let things fall through the proverbial cracks.
STORY #2: One morning, about 15 years ago, one of my friends from high school was back in town tending to her ill mother, when she dropped into my garden centre. She was in a pensive mood as her mother was not long for this world. Losing your mom makes you think about the universe in a different way. She asked me, “Are you happy?” I didn’t know how to answer. At which level were we discussing happiness and what was our form of measurement? Sorry. I am not great at simply answering yes or no.

Not knowing how to answer, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my list. I said, “I am organized.” That’s all I could offer on short notice. She asked, “Does being organized equal happiness?” She asked tough questions. “I don’t know if being organized means being happy, but being unorganized definitely means chaos and I am not happy with chaos.” That is the only way I can explain it. Lists stop the chaos, and chaos and I do not get along.
Goals give us direction. If Air Canada is flying the Halifax to Winnipeg route and the plane, due to a faulty compass, sets down in Thunder Bay, is that a success? Perhaps that appears to be too simple of an analogy, but is it? I have seen experienced operators from our trade chasing dreams that put them in the wrong place. They were using a faulty compass. How often have you driven into the yard of a greenhouse, nursery or landscape contractor, only to feel you have entered the fictional land of Dog Patch? Junk everywhere, broken-down vehicles and tractors. If that operator had written goals, would one of them be to ensure the place looked like an eyesore?

Goals keep us focused. Goals ensure that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing. Goals remind us that we cannot be all things to all people, so we must pick and choose. We do that to stay on the road to success.     

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.