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The Power Of Learning

Originally published
Originally published: 4/1/2008

Business owners must continue learning or risk dragging their companies into mediocrity.


The story goes of a lumberjack contest that pitted a young boy against a well-experienced cutter to see who could chop the most wood in an hour. Logs were stacked up in massive piles and the day came for the contest. Great anticipation filled the crowd as the whistle was about to set the two opponents in motion. The whistle blew and with that, the mighty lumberjack struck the first blow into a log.

The boy, meanwhile, stared at his ax and sat down with his back to his opponent. The boy got up in a minute and began swinging. With every hit of the blade the wood flew. The lumberjack kept swinging and splitting logs. About 10 minutes passed and the boy sat down again. This pattern kept up for the next 50 minutes. At the end of the hour the logs were counted. The crowd grew quiet as the judge announced the winner: the young man had beaten the favored, experienced lumberjack.

In disbelief, the lumberjack counted the logs himself and with indignation said to the boy, "Every few minutes I'd look over to see you resting on the stump and not doing anything. Meanwhile I kept swinging away. How is it you could beat me while wasting time?"

The boy answered, "Sir, I was not resting or wasting time. I was sharpening my ax. I just figured a sharp ax would make my work easier." 

How often do we rush into our work and not take the time necessary to "sharpen our ax?" By that I mean a couple of things: we should plan out the task at hand and apply some thought as to how to get it done efficiently, and done right. And, secondly, I mean we should take time to gain knowledge through education and skill training so we have more tools available to us to address a situation better prepared. 

I do not believe anyone is too old or too skilled to learn new things. With an open mind we learn new ideas and approaches every day. As a matter of fact, I belong to an organization designed to keep me educated in business and leadership practices that meets one day each month. This helps keep me fresh with ideas and ways with which I want to see Conditioned Air thrive. This helps me work on the business. The more tools we have by education the more value we bring to our clients and the company, not to mention each of us personally. 

Jumping right into our job seems like a good thing to do. People like to see activity happening around them. But sometimes activity can be confused for productivity. They are not the same. Peddling a bike with a flat tire requires a lot of activity. But it isn't very productive to get down the road. If we do not take the time to think and plan out our work, we actually increase the necessary activity (and possibly the wrong activity) required to perform our duties. Organizing our work into a plan allows us to review the steps we think we should take and then adjust them before committing more time and energy down a frustrating path. 

This is all part of working smarter. We already work hard. It's the combination of the two, a well laid out plan and the proper knowledge to accomplish the plan, which yields an efficient operation. But the tools of management and leadership are different than the tools of our field personnel. We necessarily invest in continuing education for our technical staff. We invest in proper vehicles to run service for our clients. We invest in locations and buildings and tools and equipment. It can be no different with our management teams, including ourselves. 

If you and I are not willing to take the time to go through self improvement, then our demand on fellow teammates rings hollow. Leadership is just that, leading — not pushing. Striving to learn new techniques and theories and practical ways to run our companies is, at the very least, selfishly in our own best interest. The lack of education for all our team members cannot be the limiting factor putting a ceiling on our companies. And, if you find yourself being the smartest person in the business, you are the limiting factor for the whole organization. In fact, author John Maxwell calls this the "Law of the Lid." By continuing to make smarter people out of the ones that surround you the company rises, and you with it. 

A couple of paragraphs ago I used the word invest repeatedly. I chose to repeat the word several times to stress a point. It takes time to raise the management education level and see a payback. It is much different than a quick-fix approach or a one-time workshop. Education is continuous. It has to have a high priority set by you. It is interactive and implemented and reviewed. The results take time to realize.

Missteps must be tolerated along the way to allow for trial and error, and success. This is a difficult process for the controlling nature of an owner. These are, however, necessary growing pains. As the organization's level of professionalism is increased, so is the level of expectation for and from all the team members. You can't get an A+ company with C- players, even if you are an A+ yourself. The more you invest in management and leadership skills the higher the company flies. Instead of a downward spiral into the abyss of mediocrity, you create an upward staircase toward superiority. 

The owner or president of the company can instill some practices in management meetings, sometimes. But even if you participate in periodic management education classes, running back with the idea du jour and asking people to implement what you just heard is not wise.

These ideas soon lose their appeal and are soon replaced by yet another idea. No focused effort or momentum is created and, consequently, nothing productive comes from this. Investing in a trusted education format that focuses on managerial growth is very valuable. Often, learning by sharing with others in the class is as meaningful and effective as the course itself. Your staff knows the value of the education and it becomes a benefit of being on the team. It also creates camaraderie among the team and peer accountability: If he or she can do this, so can I. 

It is said that talk is cheap. Not in this case. The goal is to turn the "talk" into the "walk." Implementation of the ideas learned is the payoff to the education scenario. The offsite program my management team is enrolled in covers the following topics: Leading high performance teams, personal development, effective leadership for executives, cutting-edge communication techniques for leaders, morale boosting and team building, performance management and appraisal, creating environments that get results, and the power of an aligned team.

There are a number of ways to tap various programs that speak to the needs of leadership development. Mine happens to be through an independent business coach that coordinates the speakers and facilitates the implementation sessions. These coaches exist in nearly all communities along with many programs hosted by community colleges, chambers of commerce, and economic development councils. 

For Conditioned Air, the annual investment in this series is just over $20,000 for eight people. They meet eight times per year as a group with other managers from many other types of businesses. Our business coach also is present. The group listens to and interacts with a speaker and then dedicates the afternoon to hold various discussions on the topic. However, one key to making this program truly successful is that one month after each topic is taught and discussed an implementation session is held to focus the topic and design how to effectively introduce the ideas into the managers' respective departments. This is the tactical side of business education: how to use and integrate it daily. 

As you can see, the topics are not hvacr specific. Rather, they deal with general management or business principles that all businesses must utilize. All of our managers enjoy the classes and comparing management issues with others in the class. It is refreshing and eye opening to see that these problems and opportunities transcend different businesses and industries. There is value in realizing you are not alone in your own world of leadership.

I don't expect each manager to use each and every idea that they hear. I expect them to filter the good ones from the bad ones and use those that make the most sense in their areas of responsibility. Remember, you can teach good business principles but you must hire good judgment and ethics. 

In many cases managers rise to their level by being good in industry-specific skill sets, i.e., the service manager is just that because he or she is a good field tech. But now we have thrown them into the role as a profit manager with no real skills to understand pricing issues, finances, personnel leadership, conflict resolution, etc.

Without realizing it, we can easily set someone up for failure while thinking we have just promoted them to their rightful position. Our frustration and disbelief comes when they underwhelm us in their performance and we remember how good they were as a tech. Proper business education is the essential element to set someone up for success and, consequently, set your company up for success as well. 

It costs time and money to put an education program in place for management. It must be made a high priority by the head of the company for results to be seen. But the time and money it costs not to have an educated team is much greater. Business education is a commitment that must be made to rise above much of the competition. The hard work will always be there but it will seem easier with improved efficiency. It's kind of like having a sharp ax in the forest. 


Theo Etzel is the CEO of Naples, Fla.-based Conditioned Air. He is a seasoned business executive and passionate entrepreneur who believes in providing the highest level of customer care, services and products to his clients. For additional information, visit


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