As entrepreneurs it’s easy to fall into the trap of being the cobbler whose children go around without shoes. This is particularly the case when we’re faced with the dilemma of how much of our time do we give to addressing the needs of the people we serve and how much time do we reserve for ourselves and our families. The stakes are even higher for social entrepreneurs where there is an imperative to not only do right by your customers and yourself, but also by the people who work for you, vendors, stakeholders, and the environment. 

As a new entrepreneur and the owner of a socially responsible business I encountered this dilemma. At the time, I was fortunate in having several consulting assignments at the same time. Initially, I was excited by my good fortune and didn’t think that it would be a problem to manage this workload by myself considering that I was well organized, productive, and good at managing my time. As time went on, I inadvertently put all of the pieces in place to generate a crisis that would not only have a profound impact on me, but also alter how I do business.

One morning towards the end of a particularly challenging week I was so stressed about how much work I had to do and how little time there was to get things done that I almost cancelled a meeting with my coach. Fortunately, I kept the appointment and my predicament became the focus of our conversation. With the help of my coach I realized that in my zeal to build a positive track record as a consultant and earn enough money to pay my bills, I had completely neglected myself to the point where work was virtually the only activity that I had time for. What was once solid terrain had become a slippery slope where I became hooked on the praise I received from my clients for a job well done. The problem was that I had let this become my primary source of motivation. I soon learned that if I wanted to maintain my business and a healthy lifestyle that I needed to give greater attention to my own needs, redefine with my clients what success looks like, and expand my business beyond myself.

From this experience I learned some valuable lessons:

  • Get Your Needs Met: In every relationship, it’s important to make sure that you’re deriving value from it. While the primary benefits may be financial, there are other factors that can be considered, such as the quality of the relationship, reputation, and quality of life. While we would all prefer an arrangement that meets all of our needs, it is more likely that we will need to negotiate to ensure that our most important needs are met. Don’t feel pressured to accept a deal that isn’t in your best interests. Sometimes turning down a bad offer can pave the way for a better opportunity later on.
  • Set Boundaries: Regardless of your type or stage of relationship, there are boundaries that place limits on how we interact with each other. Setting boundaries is closely related to getting your needs met. It involves ensuring that the other party understands and is willing to comply with your expectations. If you’re providing a product or service to a customer, you’ll want to have an agreement in place that defines each party’s expectations. Even after an agreement is in place, explore the possibility of redefining the terms if circumstances change and they are no longer favorable.
  • Reach Out for Help: Remember that the best cobblers have an apprentice. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, find a way to get the help you need. This could involve hiring paid staff, a short-term consultant, or a volunteer. Sometimes the emotional support of our family and friends is what helps us get through a difficult day.

In building your social change career, keep in mind that the home you inhabit, in terms of your relationship with yourself, your profession, and the people you live and work with is just as valuable as the products and services you produce for your customers.
This post was published by UnSectored for its Martyrdom in Social Change series on January 31, 2014.