As business owners, we all wear it. We have to. That professional veil that projects our most competent, confident selves to the world. The thing that puts mandatory grins on our faces and keeps the high-fives coming despite dismal sales forecasts, sluggish growth, or near-empty bank accounts.
The perception that we have it all figured out is as crucial for our own sanity as it is for our clients’ tranquility and our employees’ motivation.
Keeping up appearances is sometimes equated with being disingenuous, or even in denial. But in reality, almost no business would ever exist if it wasn’t started under the pretenses of knowing what you’re doing, but actually having no clue. There’s a reason why “fake it ‘til you make it” is a modern-day proverb.
And this is how “keeping up appearances” eventually becomes “keeping it together” — another beast entirely.
Keeping up appearances is done for the sake of others, be it clients or employees. It’s forging ahead when you’ve lost a big project; smiling in spite of tacking yet another hour onto your 70-hour workweek; or, in my case, running and growing a business on the side while still working a full-time day job.
On the other hand, keeping it together is the internal challenge that comes when you accept these circumstances as normal. Once you’ve processed that keeping up appearances is simply what you’ll need to do from now on, you’ll need to find a way to stay calm and rational in the face of “business as usual.”
This journey looks different for every business owner. There’s no right or wrong outcome, only what it is and how it unfolds. But I do believe that whether or not a business owner will ultimately be able to keep it together is based on two things: their resiliency and their “why.”
In a sense, I feel I was well-prepared for business ownership because keeping up appearances has always been a part of how I’ve learned to navigate the professional world. This started long before I met my business partner and joined him as co-owner of Exclusive Window Cleaning in 2016.
As an immigrant, person of color, and also someone who is fairly young, maintaining a competent, capable appearance is vital to any measure of my own success.
For example, I always feel that my daily work performance must be of a higher standard than that of my peers; that my words need to be perfect, my appearance and attire has to be above par, and that my presentations must always be on-point, with no room for error. I need to be constantly switched-on mentally, with little or no time to really be present or to enjoy the moment.
But these challenges have also made me a highly adept, resilient person and afforded me more business opportunities and success in the long-run. That is to say, it’s made the transition from keeping up appearances into keeping it all together far easier for me — even when tackling the toughest problems.
I can cope a little better with the fact that Exclusive Window Cleaning is still a part-time endeavor, and I have the patience and skill set to grow it into my full-time career. My practiced positivity makes clients and employees excited to work with me.
And having worked in finance and asset management for years, I know that I’m hardly alone in my business anxieties — the truth is, many small businesses are only a few months away from closing their doors. One month of slow sales or too many outstanding receivables can send a business into a tailspin.
Yet ultimately, none of this knowledge is enough to keep you going if you don’t have a “why.” If you don’t know why you go through the effort to put on a happy face, inspire employees to fire on all cylinders, and succeed, chances are you won’t do so well at keeping it together.
My “why” is the ability to help others. And I know this is far easier to do as a business owner, because I can choose who I want to help and how much to invest in those efforts.
Specifically, one of my five-year goals is to provide college scholarships to youths in my home country of Jamaica. I grew up with many kids that were brilliant, but just couldn’t afford college. Most of these folks are still around, without any opportunities for success. Others got caught up in the criminal system. And some were buried by their parents.
Given the staggering exchange rate from USD to Jamaican currency, it will only take a fraction of Exclusive Window Cleaning’s projected earnings over the next couple years to give massive opportunity to so many hardworking, deserving citizens back home.
Think about your “why,” and think hard. What will your business bring to the world that’s greater than yourself?
Remember that of course everything is easier when you’re going at it alone; the only person you’re concerned about is you.
But flying solo isn’t what business ownership, or life, is about. We’re here to connect with and inspire one another, and to do good. Sometimes that means keeping up appearances until they’re no longer appearances, but rather the very basis for our actions, beliefs, and values.
You know, the things that can make us business owners agents of change.
So, don’t be embarrassed by that professional mask you wear. Instead, embrace your uncertainty. Revel in the knowledge that what you’re doing matters enough to you to allow yourself to be vulnerable, and to care. And know that it’s the only path forward.