Start digging the well before you’re thirsty

Russ Kathrein - Selling our industry

People have asked me how I have been able to grow my career. The answer I most often give sounds a bit tongue-in-cheek, but there is truth to it. I tell people, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” But then I add, “But you need to make your own luck!”

Making your own luck comes in different forms, like dressing for the job you want, not the one you have. Envisioning a successful shot is how many professional golfers improve their game, so why not envision a successful presentation or conversation with a client or your boss? Taking advantage of an opportunity—or grabbing the brass ring when it comes by—is another way of making your own luck. Unfortunately, many people will wait too long to make a decision when an opportunity appears, or decline it out of fear of failing. Regardless of how it comes, one of the best ways you can leverage it is being prepared.

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There is obvious preparation that comes with schooling and training, or small things like always bringing a pad of paper and a pen with you when you attend a meeting. However, it is preparing for the things you don’t know or don’t need that make all the difference.

When I first started out in our industry, my brother and I bought our family business while it was still in Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to an overzealous state Department of Revenue audit. We were a successful business, but we needed to buy some time while we fought the state audit. So, the company filed for bankruptcy protection. Once we straightened things out with the state, we needed to get new bank funding to exit Chapter 11. I started personally calling on banks with our business plan. Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, bankruptcy was regarded as a scarlet letter, so it took me 72 bank presentations and meetings until I found one willing to loan us the money. During one of those many meetings a banker took pity on me. While he declined our loan request, he gave me some really sound advice. He said, “Next time, don’t wait until you need the money before you start building a relationship with a bank.” That piece of advice has stayed with me my whole career and spread to many different areas beyond banking.

When I owned my business, I would frequently get calls from headhunters exploring my interest in jobs they were trying to fill. While I was not rude to them, I dismissed them fairly quickly because I didn’t see a need for them in my future. Years later, when I decided I wanted to sell my stake in the business to my brother and move into something new, I realized I hadn’t built up any kind of network or industry contacts I could lean on. Fortunately, some industry friends introduced me to opportunities that allowed me to move on and advance my career. I never forgot that lesson. From then on, I always took the time to listen to headhunters’ calls and give them names of people I thought might be interested in the jobs they were looking to fill. I also took it one step further. Any time an industry friend was out of a job, I did whatever I could to help them find a new one. I would tell them two phrases that drove me: “A friend in need is a friend indeed” and “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

So while all generals plan for their army’s success, good generals have a Plan B, or even a planned retreat. Being successful in the present is no guarantee of success in the future. I am guessing that no one in the taxi business thought they would be threatened by the internet, but then along came Uber. You may have a clear picture of what your career will look like, but technology, acquisitions, or the economy could change all of that on a dime. Plant seeds for alternative options, even ones you may never end up needing. Do favors for people with no expectation of anything in return. Think ahead and determine what resources you may need in the future for yourself or your business.

A person who finds themselves in a drought may feel lucky they have water. But it was their advance preparation that made sure the water was there when they needed it. Dig your wells early and often—and be prepared whether you need them or not.


Russ Kathrein is with the LBM Division of Do it Best Corp. based in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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