[My Biggest Mistake] Chaos to Simplicity: Living Within Your Cubby

Departments - My Biggest Mistake

While biking across America, I discovered the value of doing more with less in all aspects of life and business.

March 26, 2013
Donna DeFranco
Phil Cooper, president and CEO, Cooper Pest Solutions, Lawrenceville, N.J.

The biggest mistake of my business career came to light at an unexpected moment: during a four-month sabbatical from work last summer while I was participating in “Bike the U.S. for MS,” a cross-country biking benefit for the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America. This invigorating team experience cleared my head and opened my mind to see my life and my businesses, Cooper Pest Solutions and BedBug Central, much differently. When I came back to work, I shared my new perspective and vision, which has improved morale, corporate culture and day-to-day operations.

Less is More. An avid supporter of MS for decades, I had spent several years planning my participation in Bike the U.S. for MS. The 2012 event coincided with my 50th birthday, and I felt that the cross-country adventure would be an ideal celebration.

I went all-out in creating a bold, brash display to bring attention to the event and the cause: I developed a website promoting the ride and encouraging sponsor support. I lined up an entourage of family and friends to accompany me for legs of the trip. And I spoke with organizers of the event to get approval for taking along an RV. In addition to bringing more attention to the event, the RV would make my experience more pleasurable — or so I thought. I had never been one for sleeping in tents or “roughing it.” If I was going to make this ride, I needed my sleep, morning coffee, clothes, electronics, etc.

So while other riders took only necessities, I had a stockpile of accoutrements. The others stashed their gear into a small 30-by-30-by-18 inch cubby, while I kept mine in a giant RV. I had lots of stuff on my bike, too: my Shimano Electronic Derailleur System, my iPhone mounted on my aero bars next to the mount for my Go-Pro video camera, my Garmin GPS and an extra computer. A SPOT Personal Tracker hung near my saddle bad, and on my helmet was another mount for the Go-Pro.

A funny thing happened on my way to the finish line. The further I rode, the more I realized that less was more. I became envious of the people who had only a few items and began to feel encumbered by the weight of my belongings and the choices, decisions and general chaos related to my RV. So as I rode, I simplified. By the end of our fourth week on the road, I had given up the RV and instead got myself a cubby like everyone else. Moving from my lavish RV into that tiny cubby was the defining moment of my summer.

What Doesn't Fit.
What I discovered was that if something doesn’t “fit into your cubby,” you can do without it. This concept applied in a literal sense on the bike ride, but it applies figuratively to everyday life and business. In all of my years in business, I had been living beyond the limits of my cubby and had been asking my team to do the same. As a result, we had been taking on more than we could handle and had been operating in a chaotic environment. We have since started managing our business in more realistic and quantifiable terms.

I did two important things when I returned from my trip: First, I shared my vision for a new corporate culture — a culture in which we work as a team to ensure that each individual is working within his or her cubby. In other words, if an employee is consistently overwhelmed by too many tasks or responsibilities, then we’re doing something wrong. We need to evaluate and develop a strategy for getting that person back within the limits of reasonable expectations.

Masters of their cubby — from left to right, Cooper Pest Solutions' Sybil Cooper, Rick Cooper, Phil Cooper and Laura Cooper. Photo courtesy of Cooper Pest Solutions.

Second, I created two new executive teams — one for Cooper Pest Solutions and one for our sister company, BedBug Central. The individuals on these teams represent a cross-section of our business, not just upper management, so that we have the advantage of seeing issues from a variety of perspectives. These teams have restructured our strategic plans and look at growth and profitability in new ways. Instead of setting a seemingly infinite number of stretch goals, we now set goals that will help us achieve our desired levels of profitability and growth without creating a complex and stressful environment.

As a business leader, you owe it to yourself and your business to take a step back and remind yourself what’s most important to you and your employees. Reflect on what you’re doing, and if it doesn’t align with your vision, then refocus. Make new choices. Try a new direction. Simplify. Cut through the clutter and get to the heart of why you got into this business in the first place. I’ve done this and I’m a calmer, kinder version of myself today. I see our employees loving to come to work, too. And we’re still profitable, still growing, still successful.

Think about it: if you can make the same amount of money and achieve the same level of growth without the burden of constant stress, why not give it a try?

As told to PCT contributor Donna DeFranco.