Everyone makes mistakes, and the journey to success is not always easy. Knowing this, we felt inspired to reach out to some of the most renowned and successful business leaders in Birmingham to gain insight into the valuable wisdom gained from an early career mistake. From local restaurant owners to public officials, these business men and women carved out their futures through dedication, perseverance and, yes, a few lessons learned. We hope you find motivation in these inspiring lessons, and remember, while mistakes are inevitable, the lessons you gain are invaluable.
12 Business Lessons Learned from Local Leaders’ Early Career Mistakes
Liz Huntley, Author of More Than A Bird, Child Advocate and Attorney at Lightfoot, Franklin & White LLC
Mistake: I did not understand how to take advantage of what mentors had to offer.
Takeaway: Be open to the advice of your mentors.
“As a young professional and throughout my career, I have been blessed to always have amazing mentors in my life. Unfortunately, it took me years to fully understand the value of a mentor and how I needed to allow myself to be a little vulnerable if I wanted take full advantage of what my mentors had to offer. As young professionals do to me today, I tried to impress my mentors that I had it together at times when I really wanted to scream, ‘Please help me figure out what I am trying to do with my career!’ I look back on those times and realize that, if I had been more open with my mentors, they could have given me the advice I needed to accelerate my career. I have learned how to take full advantage of my mentor relationships and have even mentally formed what I call my ‘personal board of directors.’ I realize that we need mentors for different aspects of our lives.
“Now, I serve as a mentor and am often frustrated when I see a young person trying to impress me instead of tapping into some good advice that I can offer. Oftentimes, I will ask questions to try to get them to open up and let me in and continue to build their trust so that they can take full advantage of the mentor/mentee relationship.”
Ben L. Erdreich, Former Member of Congress
Mistake: Running for office without being fully prepared
Takeaway: Gain broader experience and exposure before running
“As a new public official, elected to the Alabama House in November of 1970, I made the mistake of running for the U.S. Congress less than 18 months later, taking the nomination of the Democratic Party to run against the well-entrenched and popular Republican incumbent, John H. Buchanan, Jr. — a rookie mistake to try to take on such a race, with relatively limited public office exposure and far less organizational and monetary support than the incumbent. That was compounded by what developed nationally, as Richard Nixon won re-election in 1972 with one of the largest landslides in history: Nixon won 61% to 38% nationwide and 72% to 26% in Alabama. I won only 36% of the vote to Congressman Buchanan’s 60%.
“My lesson learned? Gain broader experience and public exposure in office before seeking to defeat an incumbent office-holder, and develop public and organizational support across the district, along with the financial support needed in any election. Ten years later, after spending those years in elected public office at the state and county levels, I was able to defeat the Republican incumbent congressman and was elected to the U.S. House from Jefferson County. That is the last time a Democrat defeated an incumbent Republican congressman in Alabama.”
Beth Doyle, Owner of The Collective
Mistake: Trying to please everyone
Takeaway: Trust my instincts.
“I am definitely a people pleaser, and there were several occasions early in my career that I over-promised what I really might be able to accomplish in a single visit to the salon. I learned that trusting my instincts is really more important. Communicating with my clients, building trust and being realistic goes a long way.”
Jeffrey Bayer, President and CEO of Bayer Properties
Mistake: Not surrounding myself with the best and the brightest
Takeaway: You get what you pay for.
“[My mistake was] being concerned about overhead (and therefore being conscious about salaries) versus realizing those cliches are true: You get what you pay for. Surround yourself with the best and the brightest. When that light bulb went off, it totally changed the company — total competency versus people that weren’t able to perform at the level that we needed. When you’re with people that really aren’t able to perform at the level that you expect, you become more difficult to live with, more irritable and critical, and that only compounds the problem. So to have people who are better at what they do than what you can do, that certainly changed my whole way of doing business, my disposition and everything else.”
Deborah Wiggins, Owner of The Clothes Tree by Deborah
Mistake: Thinking I could do everything myself
Takeaway: Work with people who care about people.
“I think the biggest mistake I made was thinking I could do everything myself. There’s just not enough hours in the day to be everyone and do everything that needs to be done! I learned to hire people who care about people. My first priority is to provide a great shopping experience to everyone who walks in the door.”
Caroline Little, President of Shoal Creek Properties
Mistake: Inaction for fear of failure
Takeaway: Trust your instincts and take calculated risks.
“When running a small business, it’s easy to feel like you have everything on the line. Years ago, I realized that I was handcuffing the success of my business by allowing my personal fear of failure invade my thoughts and render me actionless — something diametrically opposed to the growth of a small business. After this moment of self-realization, I began to trust my instincts and experiences and started taking the necessary risks. Now, I try not to look at a misstep as complete failure, but as a (more difficult than preferred) step closer to my goal. A friend and mentor once said that nothing worth having comes easily; I try to keep this in mind.”
Meredith McMillan, Owner of Merry Cheese Crisps
Mistake: Attempting to do it all
Takeaway: Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses.
“There were times I stayed up all night labeling my packaging bags. If you try to do it all, you’ll fail at all. I learned to be honest with myself about my strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to delegate your weaknesses and lead with your strengths. My philosophy is that if you take care of your customers, they will take care of you.”
Zebbie Carney, Owner of Eugene’s Hot Chicken
Mistake: Thinking I had to have a business partner
Takeaway: Do not be afraid to go at it alone, or if you have a partner, make sure everyone is on the same page and understands the business that you all are trying to create.
“In the past, I thought a partner was needed to help build a business while taking some of the workload and financial responsibilities of building a business. Sometimes partners can be great; other times they may not work in your favor. You can create other partnerships with your service providers.”
Randy Adamy, Owner of O’Henry’s Coffees
Mistake: Wanting to be liked rather than respected
Takeaway: Change your approach, and gain respect.
“I was an assistant manager of a restaurant soon after college. I was the same age as most of the employees. The mistake I made was wanting to be liked by the employees instead of respected. I received a scheduled review by my general manager and he pointed this out. To soften the blow, he said he did the same thing when he was my age. It took a while, but I was able to change my approach and eventually gain their respect. I see this every now and then with young people new to supervision, and I am empathetic. Because my boss took the right approach with me, I take the same approach with them.”
Ashley McMakin, Owner of Ashley Mac’s
Mistake: Doing a little bit of everything
Takeaway: Clearly define expectations and roles.
“When we started out, everyone did a little bit of everything. We did not clearly define expectations and roles for staff on the front end. There were too many general responsibilities. When it’s everyone’s responsibility, it’s no one’s. I also did not do a good job of holding people accountable to our expectations once we set them. Thankfully, our organization has grown leaps and bounds over the years and now I feel this is one of our strengths.”
Krista Conlin Robinson, President of KC Projects PR
Mistake: Trying to do it all
Takeaway: Use the power of people to further propel you, your team and your clients.
“In the earlier years of my business, all I knew was to take it all on and get it all done — solo. The passion and excitement of my work kept me fueled but this led to a real sense of pressure and work overload. Fortunately, I discovered the problem: I didn’t know how to delegate. Since that epiphany, I have learned the power in pushing aside my pride and showing respect for the talent others can bring to the table. There is no such thing as single-handed success. By delegating when needed and properly, I’ve built a strong and successful team of people who are able to meet the demands that are placed in front of us to further create, capture and connect.”
David Miller, Vice President of Customer Strategy, Marketing and Brand Execution at Buffalo Rock Company
Mistake: Giving everything to work
Takeaway: Find a healthy balance for your personal and professional life.
“When I was young, I gave my company more than I gave myself and my family. There are times you have to dig in for your career, but for me it became a lifestyle. With the company’s support, there was a turning point where I stopped and realized that I needed to make a change. So, I took a hard look at my personal and professional life, and found a way strike a balance in both.”
Go forth, be fearless enough to make mistakes, and take note of the valuable lessons you learn along the way!