Three Lessons from the Trenches

I recently started a weekly column for Crain’s Chicago Business, focusing on second-stage companies in the area. The premise is to shine a spotlight on companies that tend to fall under the radar: they’re not sexy start-ups and not corporate giants but represent the major driver of job creation and growth.

After opening with an intro piece, my first column featured Lyons Consulting Group, a Chicago-based I.T. consulting firm that doubled in size last year and plans to do the same in 2011. Although that is the only company profile run so far, I’ve completed four interviews and, in that time, have begun seeing some common threads.

Without letting the cat out of the bag on the other three, I figured I could share some important takeaways that any business can learn from. You won’t find any of this shocking but I think it’s helpful to see that these firms – all of which were started before the recession, got hit hard by it, survived, and have been growing since then – have specific things in common:

  1. They all focus on cultivating their culture. Not just the cliched “our people are our greatest asset”, but the way employees drive the company, participate in decision-making, suggest workplace improvements, etc. A couple started out with strong cultures, and a couple evolved into them. But when I started digging deep into what has made their companies tick, it wasn’t a great product or terrific customers, it was their culture.
  2. The owners invest in learning. Each interview subject talked about mentors, heros, books, or peer groups through which they learn to get better. As entrepreneurs, all were confident and optimistic about their futures but they were also humble in expressing that they have to keep learning as they stay in business.
  3. They all control costs vigilantly. Driven by the need to survive the recession, all tightened their belts during those years and have kept that same cost-consciousness today. In fact, two or three mentioned the tie-in with culture, stating that their employees help keep costs down and find more efficient ways of getting the work done.

As I continue doing these interviews, I’ll post more common threads and lessons learned.

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