Make It Your Business: Business Lessons from My Italian Mother

Vince DiCecco is a business training and development consultant and has been involved in sales, marketing and training since 1981. Contact him via e-mail at or visit

I was born into a blue-collar, middle-class Italian family in New Joisey. And I consider myself the luckiest person in the world on account of the support and guidance I received from my parents. For as long as I could remember, Dad worked two jobs to provide a roof over our heads and food on the table. He wasn’t much for conversation … except when I would screw up and deserved a lecture. Oh, but he did believe in two-way communications: he spoke and I listened. It worked for him.

But, my mother, she was different. I would hang around while she cooked or ironed, and she would share her “old country” wisdom. She was born in a small mountainside village in Southern Italy and came to this country in her mid-teens. To this day, I still don’t know how she ever became so smart about the workings of the business world.

She has always worked “for the man”—first as a seamstress in a children’s clothing factory that could best be described as a sweat shop and, up until her retirement at age 74, on an assembly line packaging pills for a pharmaceutical company. Yet I suspect she knew more about how to run a business successfully than many of her employers. And I would like to share some of her classic pearls of wisdom with you.

Sit still, shut your mouth and EAT!

Ah, those words rolled so trippingly off her tongue. I still can’t quite figure how I’m supposed to shut my mouth and put food into it at the same time, but it was great advice nonetheless. In today’s hectic world, we don’t just sit still and observe things around us enough. We are forever rushing here and there, trying to do too much, and not taking the time to do any one thing to the best of our ability. Many times we miss the subtle clues that could make all the difference and win us a customer’s or an employee’s delight and respect.

The “shut your mouth” part taught me to stifle and listen more often. Anyone who knows me, though, will tell you this is still something of a work-in-progress. If I only listen for certain things I want others to say, I’ll miss the big picture. I find I serve my customers and colleagues much better when I ask more questions than offer opinions, confirm my understanding of what was said by paraphrasing back, and express empathy for others, when appropriate.

As for the eating part . . . well, naturally, the Italian meals prepared and served at our dinner table were both appealing and nutritious. Earning a client’s trust and business, or gaining an employee’s respect and loyalty, can be as tempting and delicious as a dish of homemade manicotti—my Mom’s specialty—and a big bowl of meatballs, sausage and braciole. It’s that type of nourishment that can sustain a business for a long, long time.

Work like you will never die . . .

. . . and think you’ll die tomorrow. This is an old Italian expression that is first cousin to “plan for the worst and hope for the best.” As a business owner, you should plan to have your enterprise live long after you retire. Maybe the advice should read “work like your company will thrive forever and have a succession plan ready should you find yourself unable to lead it tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, long-term planning for many sign and digital graphics businesses is, at best, what might happen next year. Do you have an exit strategy for your company? When you are ready to retire, will you just sell off the equipment, lay off your employees, lock the doors and walk away? Will one of your children want to—and maybe more importantly, be qualified to—take over the business? If your plan is to sell the company to a non-family interest, be sure to continue to grow it all the way up to the moment the ink dries on the deal. Stranger things have happened in the eleventh hour.

Think of it this way: if you continue to drive the horses—all the way up until the moment you hand over the reins to another competent driver—with the same vigor from the time you first set out on the journey, no one can ever say you allowed the team to stumble across the finish line or end the race with a whimper.

Before you can ever help someone else…

. . . you have to help yourself. My mother had several variations on this theme. Before you can love anybody else. . . . Before you can listen to anybody else. . . . In my years as a corporate trainer, I’ve discovered the variation “before you can teach anybody else, you have to teach yourself” to be quite true.

Constantly be on the lookout for better, more efficient ways of doing everyday things. What you do for a customer today may not be good enough tomorrow. Dedicate yourself, your employees and your company to continuous improvement: in the way you serve your customers, how you manufacture your goods and provide your services, and in the ways you manage your business.

Have an annual training plan and exercise that plan. View the expense of training your workers as an investment in the company. You should expect to get a return on that investment well within 60 days of any training session. Don’t treat training as a one-time event, but consider it part of your company’s health program—that vital booster shot, if you will, that will shield you from debilitating diseases and illnesses.

Money doesn’t grow on trees…

. . . but if it did, we wouldn’t cut so many down and we’d take better care of them. I loved it when my Mom would pull this one out. Isn’t it only common sense to be careful with how a business spends its money?

However, if an expense does not have a printed invoice attached to it, many business owners aren’t aware of the adverse effect when resources are wasted. Presidents, owners and majority partners are the most frequent violators of this concept when they fail to delegate, feel compelled to roll up their sleeves and do the work themselves, and fail to allow, train or hire someone else to complete a particular everyday function. Shouldn’t business owners want to free up their time to work on the company’s vision, strategic plan and long-term goals to work on the business, rather than working in the business and getting bogged down in the daily grind—especially when very capable people are already in place willing to figure things out?

I like what Mom has done with her appendices to the age-old money adage. “We wouldn’t cut so many down,” to me, means don’t create paperwork just to cover your corporate butt. If the “required” paperwork in your company doesn’t obviously contribute to customer convenience, satisfy a government mandate, or serve as a reminder to your employees of the best way to do something, get rid of it.

When you can, reduce three pieces of paper to one by redesigning forms and eliminating duplicate information. A great example of this are the forms a doctor or dentist makes a new patient complete, which typically take longer than the length of time the doctor actually spends with them.

As far as taking care of our trees, I compare a tree to a business. When a sapling is first planted, it needs good, nutritious soil (a healthy marketplace), fertilizer (seed money), and is usually tied to a pole (a business/marketing plan) to ensure it grows up straight and tall during its formative years.

The numerous components of a tree represent all of the various people and things that help a business thrive and grow:

  • the trunk is the core competency of the company—the one distinguishing characteristic that separates this tree from all the others;
  • the branches are customers—the larger ones closest to the trunk are key clients of which there aren’t many but are critically important, and often sprout other customers via word-of-mouth referrals;
  • the flowers (the features of your goods and services) are transformed into fruit (value delivered to your customers) and are then harvested to the benefit of many;
  • the leaves are your sales and marketing professionals that shield the blossoming fruit from the scorching rays of the sun and the whipping winds of rainstorms (external challenges such as a struggling economy or competitive pressure); and
  • the odd fruit that falls are the offshoot business ventures that occasionally take root and produce their own saplings.

A parting observation

I suppose you could call the birds and the bugs that live in the tree the cadre of vendors and suppliers that depend on the tree but also bring value to it. And the squirrels? They’re definitely industry consultants. They never stay in one place for very long. They scurry noisily up and down the trunk, in and out from the branches and the leaves, then off to another tree to shake it up for a while. Most consultants I know—including this author—are pretty squirrelly, if you ask me. Still, what would the forest be without the friendly squirrel? (Ok, forget I asked that.)

So, I guess money does grow on trees. If this analogy makes sense, take special care of the components of your tree. Nurture it and your business will stand tall for many years. Thanks Mom . . . and good luck!