Entrepreneurial Success Advice from the CEO: Dr. Ivan Misner, BNI Founder

Today I had the opportunity to be part of an intimate “ask the founder” question and answer session with BNI founder and the father of networking, Dr. Ivan Misner about his recommendations for entrepreneurial success.  Founded in 1985, BNI (Business Networking International) is the largest business networking organization of its kind, with over 200,000 members worldwide and generating over $11 billion in passed business by its members.  That’s equivalent to the GDP of a small country!

I always enjoy meeting CEOs of large companies to ask about their lessons learned, observe their particular CEO persona, and hear first hand the secret sauce of becoming or running a globally recognized brand or creating entrepreneurial success.  The truth seems to be that there is no secret sauce, but there are certainly some core behaviors that make success more likely.

Lesson 1:  Entrepreneurial Success Requires Filling An Untapped Need

As Dr. Misner tells it, he never intended to start a global networking organization, he simply wanted to generate more leads for his consulting business.  As he visited networking groups in California, he found that they were either too casual and focused more on the wine and cheese than on business and creating entrepreneurial success, or else they were so aggressively sales oriented and in your face that he felt as though he had been slimed by the time he left!  Dr. Misner had a different vision, one of collaboration and business owners genuinely helping one another.  So he started his own networking group, initially called simply The Network.  It was based on the core value of what is now known as “Giver’s Gain”, or the idea that entrepreneurial success comes from first seeking to help the other business, knowing that the karma of business never fails.  When we seek to give, we will also receive.  While that may sound more like The Secret (also a good read by the way) it is now a proven business model and based on human psychology that if you develop a reputation for helping others, word will get out and people will naturally want to help you, either those you have helped directly, or others known to them.  Beyond that it is not only a lucrative way to grow your business, but one that feels pretty darned good as you’re doing it.

But back to Dr. Misner’s story.  When he launched The Network, Dr. Misner created the other core value of “Category Exclusivity” for the simple reason that he didn’t want his competitor in the room.  This created a safe space for passing business, knowing that each seat would be the sole expert for their area, and receive all of the referrals for their type of business. It allowed the group to develop a strong sense of comradery, which was further reinforced by meeting weekly.  The group was so successful that when an entrepreneur who asked to join the group was not able due to already having a competitor in the room, he asked to start his own chapter.  Dr. Misner initially refused, thinking that his focus was really on his own consulting business, but eventually agreed to help, not once but 20 more times in quick succession.  As he looked at his numbers at the end of the year, he knew that he was on to something.

Lesson:  If you see a gap in products or services to meet your needs, and know that others do too, you may have the spark of a successful business where you can create your own entrepreneurial success.

Lesson 2:  Learn To Lead And Entrepreneurial Success Will Follow

While there are certainly exceptions to great entrepreneurial success stories coming from great leaders, leadership is such a pervasive quality among successful CEOs that it deserves mention.  Leadership is not only about what you say, it is about how you say it, how you empower your team to stretch their wings, and it is also about setting repeatable processes that instill desired behaviors.  Great leaders carry themselves like a leader.  They enter a room and people feel their presence and confidence, even before they open their mouth.  As I observed Dr. Misner today, I was reminded of another CEO I had the pleasure of working with, Ed Coleman, then of Unisys Corporation.  Both demonstrate that confidence is very different that cockiness.  As we waited in line for the buffet, Dr. Misner made it a point to walk up to each of us, shake hands and share a brief conversation.  He made connections, he was approachable and engaging.  Ok so he did plug a couple of his books in the process and let us know that they happen to be available on Amazon, but hey you can’t fault the guy for selling…it’s in his DNA!

Through the afternoon he continued to behave in a manner that was unassuming, easily admitting to early poor decisions, giving credit to the work his team had done in building the organization, and still appearing to be grateful and slightly incredulous at the level of success of BNI.  He shared stories of sitting in Chapter meetings in other countries where he did not speak the language, yet could follow along with the meeting as he recognized the agenda he had built.  He emphasized the value of each BNI Chapter forming its own unique culture, and of being as selective about allowing people to join as you would if there were a one way door into your life for that person to enter.

He emphasized the importance of education in allowing people to be successful.  The best chapters globally invest in education.  BNI India is a great example.  They are voracious consumers of content on best practices and lessons learned and are highly disciplined at executing on them.  They represent only 10% of BNI Global but over 50% of social media interaction and knowledge seeking.

Dr. Misner also emphasized how critical adaptability is to entrepreneurial success.  This includes adapting your style and approach to the situation at hand.  It means seeking first to understand (as Stephen Covey would say) and then adjusting your strategy and message appropriately.

Lesson:  When you enter a room, own it with your confidence but seek to connect.  Entrepreneurial success isn’t about how well you control, it is about laying the groundwork with clean processes and then educating and inspiring others to succeed.  

Lesson 3 (This is the big one…):  Want Entrepreneurial Success? Then Focus!

I asked Dr. Misner about the traits and characteristics he sees in the most successful entrepreneurs.  Not just the ones who are doing networking well, but the ones who truly rise to the top.  Having spent time with icons like Richard Branson, as well as having observed thousands of entrepreneurs over the years, Dr. Misner is well equipped to answer this question.  I love asking this question of CEOs, especially self-made entrepreneurs since their message is always the result of a lifetime of mistakes, lessons learned and finding that nugget that leads to the top of their industry.  So if the rest of us can skip over a few of the mistakes and learn the lessons, then it would certainly make it easier to find our own nuggets.  On this question, a theme has definitely emerged, and that is the most successful entrepreneurs are able to focus.  Dr. Misner observed that entrepreneurs who make it to the top, tend to do about 6 things really well repeatedly.  They focus on very few things, get them done and get them done well.  Entrepreneurs who tend to have 100 things on their list and never get them done, fail.  They are caught in the minutia and lose sight of the strategy.

The story of Steve Jobs return to Apple is a great example of this focus.  His first move upon returning to the company he founded, after having been ousted from the board, was to trim R&D on most of the company’s projects and focus on a few that would later dominate their space.

Dr. Misner’s observation echoed a conversation I had with BNI Regional COO Peter Haines the previous week.  Haines had been involved in an MIT Enterprise Forum study of thousands of business owners to evaluate which characteristics could predict success.  They expected to identify several traits but the data was clear.  The secret sauce to entrepreneurial success is focus.

Part of focus also includes being 100% in the moment, a common trait I have seen among several C-level executives.  They may be running a demanding company, but when they meet with you they are all about you.  Dr. Misner was a great example of that today.  While I’m sure he had many demands on his time, he made us feel as though there was nowhere else he would rather be.  He wasn’t texting, stepping out for calls or looking at his watch.  Can you do that in your next meeting?  It has been scientifically proven that our brains really cannot multi-task.  When we turn our focus from one task to another, we lose efficiency as we need to ramp back up again on the first one.  Finish what you’re doing, then move to the next thing.

Lesson:  Look at your to do list.  Are you spending time leading strategy or simply executing tasks?  Are you charting a course for success or simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?  Which top 6 things can you do right now that will change your business for the better?  Be ruthless about agreeing to spend your valuable time on tasks that are not strategic to your success.  Delegate or delete whatever you should not be doing.  Don’t have the right people to do so?  Then find them.

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