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Putting Out Business Fires and One Real One

Busy people in all walks of life use the metaphor of “putting out fires” to describe their full plates at work, to-do lists around the house or any number of issues that might complicate our lives.

Put out that fire. Check.

To be sure, my position at Forest Packaging brings numerous metaphorical fires to my attention nearly every day. And that’s true for anyone looking to run a successful business. Operations. Machinery. Management of customer needs vs. wants vs. expectations. Materials. Shipping. Managing and fostering relationships with employees. Human Resources. The list is endless.

It’s fair to say Reid Hoffman knows a little about these metaphorical fires, too. He’s the guy who co-founded LinkedIn and before that was a PayPal executive who helped oversee that company’s IPO and ultimate sale to EBay. Peter Thiel, PayPal’s CEO , called Hoffman the company’s “firefighter-in-chief,” adding, “Though that diminishes his role because there were many, many fires.”

Hoffman says every business “is surrounded by fires — whether issues of product, market, competition, or operational scalability.” He adds that smart business people “don't try to fight every fire. Instead, they figure out which fires they can let burn — so they can focus on the ones they absolutely have to fight. It's a delicate balance, because if you let fires go on too long, you'll get burned.”

So how do we choose which fires to put out and which ones to let burn? I find that it’s a matter of each person knowing and committing to his or her values and instilling them in the company’s mission. Here are three standards I use:

1. I choose service to our valued, existing customers over one more marketing push to get new business.

2. I choose long-term thinking over short-term.

3. I choose attention to our employees over pretty much anything else.

Now normally, I would let this blog entry end right here. But given today’s topic of metaphorical fires in the business world, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the real fires devastating Californians.

As I write this, reports tell us at least 60 people are still missing from the fires that have killed more than 40, destroyed more than 6,000 homes and burned through at least 200,000 acres of land; 330 square miles. That’s greater than the size of San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and Fresno, combined.

No fire I’ve ever encountered or hope to encounter compares.

So I join others from all walks of life with my sympathy to all those affected and ask you to join with me and make a contribution to the California Fire Relief here.

It’s the most important fire any of us might attend to today.


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