Lessons Learned from Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary

Including: “10 Secrets to Being the Best Boss You Can Be”

A few weeks ago I had the rare opportunity to see  Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary speak and then shake hands with him afterward. I brought back his words of wisdom to share with you. The most notable were his 10 Secrets to Being the Best Boss You Can Be.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, in Shark Tank, entrepreneurs with great ideas present their business opportunities to room full of “Sharks” (investors) who put their own money on the line to help grow the business and earn a profit in the process. At dead center is Kevin O’Leary the shrewd, brutally honest and some would call “meanest” shark of 5 investors who feels like he speaks on behalf of money and tells it like it is. After a failed deal his famous slogan “you’re dead to me” will spring a chuckle from any seasoned viewer.

A big part of Mr. O’Leary’s philosophy is that if you’ve been successful, you really do owe it to pass on the wisdom, knowledge and experience you’ve gained to the next generation. In fact, Shark Tank is truly an avenue to put money where his mouth is and deploy his hard earned soldiers (money) to work in the hands of others. He feels that the lessons of business won’t change in 1,000 years, perhaps only the venue. Who knows - you may one day buy a Coke on a starship.

What is fascinating about the show is its success. Why does a 9 year old, their youngest viewer demographic, love the Shark Tank? Why was it successful in Canada as Dragon’s Den, and the most successful in America, increasing in popularity every year for 6 years running? It’s a phenomenon and what Mr. O’Leary shared with us may change the way you interpret the show from now on.

He feels that Shark Tank has been so successful because it is the very essence of the American Dream.  It’s not about money or greed but freedom. Becoming a success on the show and the platform upon which it stands is financial freedom. The idea that anyone with a good idea, be it cupcakes in a jar, an innovative sponge or a family recipe for bar-b-que sauce can show and bring their products to the world and become financially independent in the process is what America is all about.

As a bit of a side note, we were in one of the final rounds to make it onto the show. Out product, the LuxiBoard (www.luxiboard), the digital touch-screen replacement for the classic cork bulletin board sparked the producers’ interest last season. Unfortunately it is a B2B product and most of what you see on the show are consumer products. It goes to show that any good idea has a chance at success.

The Sharks from Shark Tank

Cast of ABC’s hit show, Shark Tank (from left to right): Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran and Robert Herjavec

Mr. O’Leary cited a case study in which researchers reviewed the footage of every episode of the UK and Canada’s Dragon’s Den and the US version, Shark Tank to find the commonalities between companies  that get funding and those that don’t. In 100% of the cases, those entrepreneurs that satisfied the following 3 criteria received investment capital.

  1. The entrepreneur was able to articulate the opportunity in 90 seconds or less. The best ones were able to do this in 30 seconds or less.
  2. They were successful in convincing investors that they were the right team to execute the business plan.
  3. They knew their numbers and had a comprehensive understanding of their business models and the markets in which they operate. For example, they knew how much money was needed to break even, who their competitors were, market cap, etc.

I’ve included these 3 points as they likely pertain to your business. Are you able to briefly articulate your market opportunity? Do your customers consistently see you as the best fit for them? How well do you know your market and when was the last time that data was evaluated? Sometimes seeking to improve a business starts with re-visiting the fundamentals. According to the research Kevin O’Leary mentioned, this might be it.

The 10 Secrets to Being the Best Boss You Can Be

Over the years Mr. O'Leary has worked for others and for himself. Through trial and error he has figured out a few key character traits that helped hone his leadership skills. Directness, transparency, and decisiveness are three essential traits of a good boss. It’s also important to remember the rules outlined below:

  1. Employees are not your friends.

    Even if you like them, even if you hired them because they are your friends, while they are working for you they are not your friends. They are your employees. The problem with socializing with your employees is that it makes it hard to be objective about their performance, and harder still to crack down on them if they’re under performing.

  2. Maintain a clear line of command.

    If done correctly employees will always knew which problem to goes who and which they are to solve themselves. Overlap of authority can get confusing, muck up productivity, and cause unnecessary delays, if not out-and-out grief.

  3. Be accessible.

    You’re not building a fiefdom—you’re building a company. Don’t alienate, isolate, or separate yourself from your partners and top earners. Don’t put them on hold, don’t fail to return their calls, and don’t make them feel like they cannot approach you. Such behavior is  toxic and it’s usually the product of fear or the inability to cope during troubled times. If your first instinct is to bury your head, you are not a leader.

  4. Delegate, delegate, delegate.

    You cannot—nor should you—do everything. CEOs who think that they should weigh in on every single aspect of their company get too bogged down in the details, much to the detriment of the overall health of the company. If a ship’s captain is overseeing the catering, he’s going to hit an iceberg.

  5. Don’t procrastinate.

    When an employee is problematic, you must act. Now. Do it right. Do it by the book. But do it.

    Kevin O'Leary

    "Money equals freedom"
    - Kevin O'Leary

  6. Never pass the buck.

    Blame stops with you. It always stops with you. Even if you think you had nothing to do with the decision that got your company into trouble in the first place, you’re wrong. You likely had something to do with hiring the person who did screw up. Take immediate responsibility, do what you can to fix the problem, and then whack the knucklehead who couldn’t keep pace. If your name is on the product, business, or marquee, that’s especially important.

  7. You’re not their parent.

    Employees will only bring their drama to work if you let them. If you don’t want to be treated like a parent, don’t act like one. If employees are having squabbles, let them figure it out among themselves. Try to steer clear of giving personal advice — employees problems are their problems to solve. And it’s up to them not to bring those problems to work. By the way, if one of your employees is suffering from a genuine issue—addiction, depression, that kind of thing—don’t suggest they get help, insist upon it.

  8. Life’s not fair.

    Some people will simply make more money than others in the same job. Some people will work harder. Some will get higher sales. You will trust one over the other to get the job done. You will likely have favorites. That’s life. If someone complains about it, tell him or her to get over it.

  9. The boss doesn’t always make the most money.

    Find stars and pay them well. If you want to attract those stars, you’ll have to lure them with dollars. Remember that money’s the great motivator, and if it means you take a hit financially, take it. Talent will always bring in more money for the company, and that has got to be your number one priority always. Which leads to…

  10. The company comes first.

    This is the most important tenet. Have a singleness of purpose—the health and welfare of the company—keeps things clean and clear. Employees never question your priorities, nor do they have to guess at their goals.

So what’s it going to be? Kevin O’Leary is famous for being brutally honest and thought provoking. Some audience members were left a bit uncomfortable with his approach to treating employees and building empires. What’s your take on this? Feel free to shoot me an email and to let me know what you think and if Kevin’s advice might help grow your business.

-Attila

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