12 Enterprising CEO Secrets To Launch And Grow Your Business

By: Vickie L. Milazzo, RN, MSN, JD

To reach the top, personally and professionally, you must act like the people who are already at the top. Top CEOs like Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump, no matter how different their approaches, have one key quality in common: they are enterprising. Enterprising CEOs manage life from the driver's seat. They choose their destination, make their own road rules and cash the big checks.

Reward doesn't have to appear as dollars in the bank, but an enterprising CEO does expect a payoff. What ultimate reward will you receive from rising to the top as an entrepreneur? A new Porsche? An Italian villa? An exotic vacation to Poughkeepsie? A promotion? Or simply making a difference in the world? Getting in touch with that payoff, knowing the "why" in the "want" sustains your commitment to follow through, rise to the top and reap the payoff you desire.

When you think about it, life is the grandest enterprise of all - and you're in charge. Top CEOs know they are not only CEOs of their companies, but enterprising CEOs of their lives. You manage your personal development, finances, public relations, transportation, commissary, entertainment, janitorial services and even human resources. You're already the CEO of the business of running your life, fully vested in the payoff, so why not act the part and take on your next exhilarating enterprise as a consultant or small business owner?

I bellied up to this concept in 1982 when I decided it was time to act like the CEO of my life and career instead of acting like an employee. I discovered the enterprising secrets of top CEOs, left my hospital job as a registered nurse earning $28,000/yr, and launched what is today a multimillion-dollar business.

I used my 12 CEO Secrets of Enterprise to launch my business and grow it annually for 26 years. These same secrets will help you rise to the top as CEO of your business.

CEO Secret 1: Everything Is Marketing

The old saying among entrepreneurs, that nothing happens in business until "somebody sells something," is equally true in life. From the moment you were old enough to realize that a smile could "sell" your parents on giving you another cookie, you've been marketing your ideas.

  • Getting a promotion or pay raise means selling your supervisor on your abilities, attitude and experience. That's marketing.

  • Convincing your spouse it's okay to leave the dishes and cuddle up for some intimacy may require charm and persuasion. That's marketing.

  • Convincing your property owners' association to resurface the tennis courts might require a benefit analysis and presentation. That's marketing.

  • Corralling a widely separated extended family for a reunion will mean selling the idea, date and place to all family members. That's marketing.

When I received my master's degree in nursing, I learned the hard way that this valuable asset had no value unless I marketed it. No one at the hospital said, "Thank you for pursuing higher education, Vickie. Here's the pay raise you deserve." I attempted to market that idea to my manager, but she didn't buy in, so I marched my asset out the door to start my own business.

I had a new idea, legal nurse consulting. I learned very quickly the best idea goes nowhere without strong, innovative marketing behind it. Starting your business means selling you and your expertise.

Marketing has three simple parts: First, find a need. Second, fill that need. Third, convince people to buy in. As CEO, start viewing everything you do from this three-part marketing perspective.

Envision your bold enterprise. Visualize your venture and answer the question, "What will this do for me?" Write down in detail the payoff you desire - more money, more free time, more happiness or all three. Embellish your vision with sensory detail. See, hear, taste and feel it. The more real it is to you, the more you'll believe in your ability to make it happen.

Communicate your enterprising idea with energy and confidence. You have a story to tell about your new business, and you have to make it interesting, believable and irresistible. Is your story intriguing? Does it highlight your knowledge and expertise?

  • Be authentic. Your message must be not only interesting but also real. "Own" your message. Build the core of your presentation around the concept of filling a need. Demonstrate how your expertise will benefit your clients, then prove why you're the right match for that client.

  • Connect with your audience. Companies we call "super brands" make customers feel special just for buying their product and smart for owning it. Make sure you connect with prospects in a way that allows them to trust you and your expertise. Reinforce your message in everything you do. More than "service with a smile," give "service with bold competency." Make businesses want to seek you out to work with you again.

  • Repeat your story often. Not everyone will get it, not everyone will buy in. But every aspect of your life is a marketing opportunity. Keep polishing your presentation and spreading the word.

CEO Secret 2: Be Your Own Number One Fan

CEOs promote their company and their achievements. They know that buyers don't want to purchase from losers. Announcing your achievements may feel boastful, but can you imagine Oprah or Donald being shy about broadcasting their triumphs?

With humility, let your target market know any time you score - whether it's finishing a high-profile project, winning a relevant award or expanding your services. Who you know is important, but even more important is who knows you. Achievements are your resume and expand your credibility. Announcing your achievements also validates the choices people have made on your behalf - the business who hired you or the client who recommended you wants to know he bet on a winner.

  • Write a note. Send newsworthy communications to your clients, friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. Be concise, stir in a little humor, and people will look forward to receiving your news.

  • Roll out a news flash. Craft a short, punchy message and tack it onto your voice mail message or place a hyperlinked tagline under your email signature to take recipients to your website.

CEO Secret 3: Expect Icebergs

No enterprise is unsinkable; the Titanic sank its first time out. Plenty of entrepreneurs have made and lost millions on their rise to the top. But when you act like a CEO, you'll create such a solid foundation and framework for your business that only an enormous iceberg could knock you off course.

  • Assess your strengths and challenges. The stability of your business comes not only from how you handle day-to-day routines, but more importantly, from how you engage your strengths when an iceberg pops up unexpectedly. Challenges may involve limited expertise, competition or getting along with a difficult client. By knowing what you have in reserve and frequently reassessing the waters ahead of you, you can maneuver with confidence. Be honest with yourself. A fair, honest assessment will help you develop the necessary strengths or marshal the outside resources you'll need.

  • Be willing to risk hitting icebergs. You have to sail before you can fail. You can maneuver around icebergs, but if you never leave the dock, you'll never have an enterprise to keep afloat. If you're not out there in a big way, you won't risk but you also won't win. Often it's not hitting the iceberg but the fear of hitting it that drowns you. How many people resist changing jobs or leaving a bad marriage only to realize after they do that it was the best decision they ever made? Jane Austen, the famous English novelist, chose not to marry out of her poor background but to pursue her dream of writing - in a time when women writers were considered "scandalous." She braved the iceberg. Soon she'd written six of history's most important works of English literature. If she'd married any of her suitors, she might have lived a more comfortable, but less fulfilling life.

  • Have a rescue plan. Knowing and planning for the worst contingency alleviates the worry that can prevent you from making bold choices. When I started my legal nurse consulting business, I simply wanted to match my modest nursing salary. What did I have to lose? Any time I needed extra money to keep my enterprise afloat, I could work a few shifts at a hospital. Knowing I wouldn't sink entirely gave me courage.

Write your rescue plan. Look at your savings, your earnings and how long you'll need to float your business before it generates adequate income. You're probably in better shape than you suspect. If not, you have two choices:

  • Go all in anyway; or

  • Set a reasonable time period to succeed, then engage your rescue plan. Just don't bail out too early or too easily.

Either way, at least you've launched your ship.

CEO Secret 4: Solve Problems Quickly and Decisively

Top CEOs move so quickly they exhaust the people working with them, but speed is one of their success secrets. Not haphazard, as some might believe, fast-moving CEOs are constantly developing the concepts and principles that guide their rapid decision making as they continuously strengthen the foundation of their enterprise.

Act like a CEO: Put the fundamentals in place so you can implement creative and effective decisions. Then apply this problem-solving template and you'll leave people around you scratching their heads:

  • Define the situation. Define why it's important, the relevant facts, your goal in solving the problem and the strategies you've already implemented.

  • List the people. Include family, consultants, peers, your housekeeper, your son's basketball coach - everyone who can help you solve the problem.

  • Sleep on it. The moments between sleep and consciousness are fertile ground for creative problem solving. When you awake, the solution will often be waiting for you. Meditate on the issue or think about it while you exercise. I've often had to unwind from a yoga pose and pop out of the class to jot down a solution after having an "ah-ha" moment. When your conscious mind is quiet, your subconscious can work its magic.

  • Identify the necessary actions. Identify any actions you will personally take to resolve the problem. Look to your past successes and acknowledge that you have the inherent strengths. Identify the actions you will delegate. You don't have to do it all yourself - even if you are a one-person business. Top CEOs delegate extensively.

  • Evaluate the results. Apply what you learn to the next challenge that comes. Healthcare mistakes can be deadly, so as nurses when an incident occurred, we always asked ourselves, "What did we do wrong? What did we do right?" Evaluate each problem you solve and ask, "What can I learn that will help me in the future?"

An enterprising CEO never allows problems to thwart momentum. Resolve negative situations promptly and seek inventive ways to turn them into opportunities.
As CEO, you're responsible for making decisions. No one can move or decide as quickly as you can. Accept that responsibility and keep the forward momentum going.

CEO Secret 5: Don't Be a Commodity

Top CEOs build businesses that are not easily duplicated. Ease of duplication creates commodities, and a commodity business is the kiss of death. Water used to be a commodity until companies like Fiji and Perrier changed our perception. Then Coca-Cola and PepsiCo got involved, and today, water, available just about everywhere for free, outsells almost every other bottled drink at a high price.

My company sells an educational experience. We don't sell seminars, DVDs or CDs, although those are the media we employ. Instead, we sell a lifelong relationship that includes mentoring and the fact that our students are learning from the pioneer and leader in the industry. Our ideas are often duplicated, but no one can duplicate our relationships, our knowledge or our 26-year advantage.

No matter what you do or what your enterprising idea is, don't be a commodity. If you turn your business into a commodity, you'll go bankrupt.

To avoid becoming a commodity:

  • Build relationships. Be interested in others. Create genuine connections built on trust and caring. Quietly persuade the prospect that no one else can duplicate your exceptional service and work product, and you'll never be a commodity because you can never be duplicated. In return you will receive and keep business from the best clients

  • Demonstrate trust. Trust has to be earned. Never promise what you can't deliver or you might not get a second chance. Instead, promise small and deliver big.

  • Go all in. Don't shrink into your chair and become invisible. Clients pay you to speak up even when that means disagreeing about significant issues.

  • Strive to stand out. Demonstrate your ability to bring new ideas to the table. While you don't want to have "verbal diarrhea," you do want your client and other members of their team to notice you and your contributions. It's easy to stand out when you pay attention and speak up.

CEO Secret 6: Don't Underprice Yourself

Top CEOs reject the common thinking that "if you drop your price - you'll get the job" or "lower price equals higher sales."

  • Place a high value on everything you know. In the information age, education doesn't come cheap and wisdom is gold.

  • Place a high value on everything you do. Outsource whatever you can. My first job every morning is to make sure my staff is doing as much of my work as I can delegate. That frees me to develop new tools, skills and strategies for moving forward.

You may need to give up something to pursue your enterprise. Get your spouse to help with the dishes, the dinner and the carpool. Stop chairing every volunteer committee. Your time is one of your most precious assets. You only get 24 hours a day - choose to spend them wisely. If a project isn't supporting your enterprise, ask yourself how to drop it, delegate it or find another way to accomplish it.

  • Become irreplaceable. Give the client what she wants and more. Ultimately, no one is irreplaceable. You render yourself "irreplaceable" by making the client think of you first for any case and feel they will profit measurably from your input and enterprising ideas.

  • Be original. Stamp your performance with originality so that you are not easily duplicated by a cheaper hire. Clerical assistants are commodities. Clerical assistants with the ability to organize, handle customers, keep a CEO on-target and stay calm in the face of a crisis become executive assistants. A nurse is a commodity. A Certified Legal Nurse Consultant who understands the legal nurse consulting process at its most complex and deepest level is a highly paid and valued consultant to the litigation team.

  • Quote high fees. My executive assistant quoted one of the highest salary requests I have ever encountered for that position. I weeded out the candidates who underpriced themselves, assuming they wouldn't work at the level I expected, and hired her at her asking price. It turned out she was worth it (but don't tell her I said that).

CEOs drive luxury cars, stay in luxury hotels and dine at fine restaurants for a reason beyond personal gratification. They always present themselves and their work in a style that demonstrates value, and others see them as priceless.

CEO Secret 7: Don't Overrate Networking

Sometimes I joke that time spent networking is time spent "NOT working." Enterprising CEOs are selective about where and with whom they network. You won't find them at your breakfast club meeting. CEOs research what they need, locate the source and ask. They create a network of colleagues, clients, consultants, vendors and acquaintances they can depend on to deliver anything from information to referrals.

Networking clubs can absorb time while distracting us from what we really need to accomplish. It's easy to convince yourself that heavy networking is productive when it's not. And you could be taking advice from people who mean well but are not qualified to give it.

I built my business on selective networking. I'm always asking people I trust and respect, "Who do you know who…?" I've gotten our company's marketing director, investment counselor, graphic design firm and health insurance provider this way, not by trading business cards at a mixer.

  • Cast your net selectively. Don't confuse networking with socializing. Choose opportunities that put you in the middle of people who are even more successful than you are. Cultivate your network using your relationship skills to include successful entrepreneurs in other industries.

  • Don't just hang around waiting to be introduced. After being named one of Inc.'s Top 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America I attended the Inc. Conference, I mixed with CEOs and representatives from some of the country's top corporations. You can bet I had formulated different introductions for each of the different situations in which I found myself. Networking is sometimes a "once in your lifetime" opportunity - be prepared to make it pay off. Don't be a wallflower. If you don't feel comfortable introducing yourself to people, role-play with a friend and practice until you do. You have to step out to step up.

  • Give generously and demand reciprocation. Expect high performance from your network and reward performance. Say "thank you" with a note, flowers, a bottle of wine or a nice lunch. Also, don't hesitate to cull out any person, business or organization that repeatedly fails to perform.

  • Stay connected. Send handwritten notes, emails and other thoughtful communications to create a lasting bond with clients, coworkers and all members of your network. Something as simple as a "happy birthday" jotted on a card or a handwritten "thank you" instead of an email will go far.

  • Strategically widen your net. Get in the habit of passing along names - your hair stylist, your plumber, your lawyer, your banker - not to just anyone but selectively and with high praise. Their time is valuable too. They'll appreciate the selectivity as you would.

CEO Secret 8: Invest in Win-Win Relationships

Top CEOs make sure they're not the only ones gaining from their initiatives.

  • Initiate alignment. When building your business, look at what's in it for everyone - clients, family and vendors. You'll get better participation and results when everyone benefits.

  • Initiate alliances. Create strategic alliances with people who can advance your business while you advance a goal of theirs. You never know how you can help out a friend or colleague until you ask. People will appreciate your offer of help even if they refuse it. In the business world, it never pays to alienate anyone. Ripples spread wide from rocks thrown in the lake. You never know who is aligned with whom. Never gossip and don't hesitate to say you're sorry. Treat everyone as an ally, even those who can't advance you. Never be condescending. Practice integrity with everyone at every level. It's always better to have allies than enemies.

  • Stay cool and clean. Avoid whiners, complainers and the wrong crowd. Although the wrong crowd might appear popular, it won't be popular among the people who count - successful business owners. Keep your hands and your nose clean - it'll pay off in the end.

CEO Secret 9: Compete Only with Yourself

Mushing a loaded dogsled across an Alaskan snowfield, I learned firsthand that it's true - if you're not the lead dog, the view from the rear never changes. And the rear is exactly where you'll be if you compete only with others.

To excel as an enterprising CEO, you must be aware of competition, but don't allow that awareness to veer you off course. If you focus on your competition (someone brighter, richer or better looking), you'll always be one step behind them. If you focus on your own enterprise and compete with your own best performance, you'll be the lead dog your competitors imitate, leaving them in the rear.

  • Be an innovator, not an imitator. Top CEOs know what works today won't work tomorrow. That's why they focus on innovation. If you copy your competition today, you're already a step behind because she's already working on tomorrow.

  • Continually improve your education and skills. The world doesn't stand still, and neither can you. The only way to stay ahead in this fast-paced era is to learn something new every day. Research what you don't know. Hire other consultants to fill in the gaps in your expertise until you either have time to learn it. If you try to learn it all, you won't have time to do anything else. Hire specialists, consultants and sharp employees.

  • Make advancements every year. Every CEO knows that a company advances, declines or stagnates according to the expectations of its management team. When you expect to grow and you put a growth plan in action, you'll see results. Greet each new year with an attainable, detailed growth plan that includes goals, strategies and target dates.

  • Keep physically fit. Being a CEO is demanding. Life is demanding. To live life at its fullest and create an enterprise that makes you love getting out of bed every day, you have to feel your physical best. Your health is your most important asset. Put fitness at the top of your priorities. Schedule time at the gym. If you're physically fit, then you're more likely to be mentally fit. Schedule some quiet time. Innovative ideas emerge from silence.

  • Keep financially fit. A competitor once commented sarcastically that my clients pay for my big house, my big vacations and my big smile. Of course they do. Any enterprise is profitable or it isn't an enterprise - it's a charity. The word profit stems from a Latin word meaning "advancement or improvement." As CEO, you must expect to profit from every investment.

Create an income and spending plan. Make a budget and stick to it. Keep the cash flow positive. You owe it to yourself and your family to be financially fit, and being free from financial worry allows you to pursue your enterprise with passion.

CEO Secret 10: Get Your Hands Dirty

I joke that I'm a working CEO, the kind who makes things happen. Successful CEOs get their hands dirty. All great chefs start by working in the kitchen. You can't cook from behind your desk, so get up, get out and chop some onions.

The best leaders lead by example. If you get down in the trenches, instead of always standing on the sidelines giving orders, it is easier to convince others to fall in with you. And you'll demonstrate the results you expect. You don't have to organize every medical record, mail every invoice or empty the trash every day. Be in the space; demonstrate that you understand the job that each subcontractor or employee is doing. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Be willing to work.

In teaching and mentoring nurses for 26 years, I've observed that for many the vision is the easy part. Committing to the dirty details that convert that vision into reality is tough. This often involves early mornings, late nights, working weekends and carrying out the trash. If you don't do the dirty work or have someone do it for you, your enterprise will fail.

  • Clean the kitchen. In my company, everybody takes a turn at kitchen duty. In my household, everybody is expected to clean up their own messes and pitch in at meals. As CEO, you have to set the example - then demand that everyone follow it. You're responsible for your gains and your mistakes. Responsible people gain respect, so clean up your own messes and be responsible.

  • Make the coffee. The first one in makes the coffee, right? That's responsibility on a small scale. A CEO shoulders responsibility for getting many projects started. You show how it's done, set the pace, then offload some of that responsibility so you can pioneer the next project. Just remember to check in and have a cup of coffee now and then to make sure your standard is being upheld.

  • Turn off the lights. The last person out locks up. Someone has to sign off that a project is finalized with all the T's crossed. Enterprising CEOs don't take this for granted. The best ideas can bomb when final details are overlooked. It's your name on the door - so be sure the right people are focused on those details.

CEO Secret 11: Make Perpetual Lists

CEOs have assistants to remind them what to do. Like executive assistants, lists can save you hours of fumbling and head-scratching. Lists keep you organized and prevent wasted time going back for an item you forgot.

I maintain a perpetual grocery list on my computer, which I simply update and print out when it's time to shop. I keep a list of travel items to pack no matter where I'm going. I also keep a list of future business ideas so I won't forget them. Which of your routines would benefit from being perpetualized on a grab-it-and-go list, freeing you to work on your business?

  • List the steps. Anything you do repeatedly that requires specific steps - from shopping for the kids' school supplies to publishing an electronic newsletter - can benefit from a checklist. Break the job down into the smallest steps. Update your lists as you go - adding, deleting and recategorizing items as necessary.

  • List the people skills. How can you possibly remember all the aptitudes and expertise of every person in your network? It's easy when you have a list. List everybody you know alphabetically. Beside each name, write down what they do professionally, the organizations they belong to, their pastime interests and any other skills, abilities and talents they have. Every time you learn something new about a person, add it to your list. What a priceless resource you'll have!

  • List the essentials. For any situation that requires take-alongs, such as meetings with clients, list every item necessary or even desirable to make the event successful. You can always elect to eliminate something on the list, but if it's listed, at least you have the option before you go rather than when it's too late.

CEO Secret 12: Put Systems to Work for You

CEOs like to spend their time creating, so they're adept at systemizing routine tasks. Anything you do repeatedly can be systemized so others can do it. Systemize everything, and don't reinvent the wheel every day (only on the days you really, really need a new wheel).

  • Ask "How can I do it faster?" Write down all the steps you take to accomplish a routine task. Don't cheat; put in absolutely everything. Now look at all that work. Which steps can you eliminate or reduce and get the same result? If you can systemize a task so that it's reproducible, you can delegate it, which means you have more time to do more important things.

  • Ask "How can I do it easier?" What tools would facilitate this task? When you have to pound a lot of nails, you want a heavy hammer. Better yet, a pneumatic nail gun. Or would a staple gun work better? The right tools can smooth any process.

  • Ask "How can I do it cheaper?" A CEO's time is the most costly in the entire company. I've known business owners who claim it's faster to do things themselves rather than delegate and train. Using their high-dollar time on tasks that should be delegated is costly to the success of their business. What can you effectively systemize and delegate that would result in a better allocation of your time and resources?

  • Create templates. Emails, letters, forms and other documents that must be created or updated frequently can be systemized. For any new document, first review what already exists. Then copy, adapt and pull from previous efforts.

  • Automate online processes. Use the tools that make your Internet use faster and easier. Beyond bookmarking your favorite sites, rent a web-savvy geek for a day to show you how to automate searches, postings, news you need and email.
    Make it a habit to look for ways to systemize processes. As CEO, you can accomplish more in less time with less stress by using available systems or creating your own. If you systemize one process a week, think of all the vacation time you'll earn, or the time you'll have for other parts of your business.

Take the Driver's Seat

You can be successful at many endeavors. Even though we all have to do things that are not our top favorites, successful self-development lies in selecting and focusing on the enterprising activities you like to do and continually improving what you do well. People often think I go after all kinds of ideas, and I'll admit to constantly aiming for higher levels, but over the years I've rejected many ideas because they didn't meet my criteria for an enterprising life, a life of choice.

Top CEOs like Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump are masters of selection and masters of enterprise. Use my 12 CEO Secrets to apply the CEO strength of enterprise to whatever you want to accomplish, and you'll always be in the driver's seat. You'll choose your own destination, make the road rules and cash the big checks. Everyone will yearn to discover your secrets and replicate your success.

Life, the grandest enterprise of all, is as thrilling a ride as you want to make it - and you're the CEO in charge. So act like it today and you'll rise to the top tomorrow.

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Vickie L. Milazzo, RN, MSN, JD is the founder of Vickie Milazzo Institute, a legal nurse consultant training and certification company. Vickie is credited by The New York Times with pioneering the legal nurse consulting profession in 1982. The Institute also provides a directory that will assist an attorney in a finding a qualified expert medical witness for their case.

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