Tapping The Entrepreneur in All of Us

After 15 years of working for other people, I quit my job—I finally realized I needed to do something on my own. I was frustrated and demoralized, my ideas were being marginalized and I wasn't waking up in the morning looking forward to a new day. With my wife, Paula, and our business partner at my side, I started a lecture agency, with no experience or real plan.

Before too long, other people were working for me. I wanted them to succeed and excel, to be engaged in the business and to take an active role in making it grow. Something I didn't experience myself.

When, for the first time, you start your own company, you learn a lot of lessons quickly—or else you quickly fail. The first crucial lesson I learned is that it is easy to lead the wrong way.

Managing and controlling every detail of what others do is not leadership. It squelches the human spirit, individual initiative and ideas, and it leaves people without a real stake in the company or themselves.

What successful leaders do instead is establish guidelines and a moral compass by setting high standards—and then step back and lead by example, giving those guidelines and standards a chance to take root. The idea is to provide a creative atmosphere and to give everyone in the company the freedom to identify opportunities, and to make their own decisions and to take risks.

Only in this way can people have a sense of pride in their accomplishments and a claim of authorship in the organization’s success.

To pull this off, though, you must first establish an atmosphere of trust and faith. I learned this lesson by mistake. We were so excited to get our first exclusive speaker that we came to an agreement with a handshake. This was contrary to the industry practice of signing speakers to one- and two-year written contracts. This questionable decision turned out to be a defining moment for us. Our speaker could walk away from us at any time and we had to work hard to keep him happy. Immediately, this did two things. It established a bond of trust between us and the speaker, and it set an example (we can rely on each other) for our employees. For 35 years, every speaker agreement has been based on a handshake and the concept of trust, as a guiding principle, has been a foundation of our company.

To succeed, you also need a great product or service. We were not a company until we got our first speaker, and the future of our company has always depended on representing great speakers.

Further, you need an unflagging commitment to the highest quality and to a culture that embraces change. People and organizations get stale, and lose their competitive edge, when they don’t reinvent themselves and what they deliver.

And you also have to reward people and pay them well. Employees want to feel that they have a future ahead of them. It is not only important to provide a good, creative environment in which to work but also a place where individual achievement results in individual happiness and satisfaction.

To be sure, the accomplishments of any staff may vary in frequency and magnitude—but entrepreneurial success will happen if you lead in the right way. I can’t tell you how many of the folks in my company think they are the best in the business—and they all are, in their own unique and special way. They are all passionate about what they do, which is what it takes to succeed today.


Washington DC-based Bernie Swain is co-founder of the Washington Speakers Bureau and today's foremost authority on the lecture industry. Over the past 35 years, Swain has represented former US Presidents, cabinet members, business executives, public figures, media leaders, and sports legends. His new book, What Made Me Who I Am, is available everywhere.  For more, visit BernieSwain.com.

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