Business Lessons from “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of what’s become a holiday classic. It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey, a middle-aged man who in spite of working tirelessly in his family business experiences a calamity of events right before Christmas, that causes him to wish he would have never been born. With the help of his guardian angel Clarence, he’s able to see the impact he’s had on so many people in his community, what really matters most, and that life’s riches are much more than the size of one’s bank account.  

A lot has changed in the way we do business in 75 years, but many of the business and life lessons in Frank Capra’s 1946 classic are as relevant today as when the movie was first released. Whether your business is chasing its first million or billion in sales a little discernment on these lessons should be worthwhile, regardless of the product or service your business provides.

Business and life plans rarely go as expected

George’s plan to see the world and engineer great bridges and buildings is interrupted when his father unexpectedly dies of a stroke. George steps in to take over the family business, ultimately changing the course of his life. 

Strategic Planning sessions are incredibly valuable for the overall direction of business, but there are times when events out of the business owner(s) control occur. When unexpected events impact your business you have to be open to making necessary corrections, especially when it’s for the greater good.

Competitors can be unethical and merciless

When Mr. Potter (the banker) accidently has an $8,000 deposit handed to him in a newspaper by George’s Uncle Billy, Mr. Potter views it as an opportunity to put his competitor, Bailey’s Building & Loan out of business.

Today, regardless if you have a monopoly on a market or sell a highly commoditized product or service we all need to be aware that some of the biggest threats that could cripple your business is no longer the business selling the same widget you sell, but the exponential growth we are seeing in Cyber Attacks.  This isn’t meant to be a scare tactic but know that there are bad people out there who would love to get your information. Have a system to protect it. And though competition is good, there are those willing to overstep ethical boundaries in an effort to gain market share.    

Have a mission about more than money

The Bailey Building and Loan provided an avenue for people to build and own their own homes. Their mission was helping people in the community become homeowners more than it was about seeing how much money they could make off their loans.

All businesses must be profitable. You should never apologize for having a successful profitable business. Some of the most philanthropic people in the world are owners of successful companies. That said, it is rare that you find a financially success business owner who says his only mission was to make lots of money. Usually, the money is simply the by-product of a passion they had to solve a problem or fill a need in their local community or beyond.

The impact of a positive Customer Experience

When word gets out about $8,000 missing…that this time it’s George who needs help, the community responds in an inspiring way. All the customers, family, and friends he has helped throughout his life come to his rescue. Many of them offering whatever resources of funds they had to help the person who previously helped them. This time George was the recipient of the same customer experience he had been providing his community for years.     

Customer Experience (CX) is simply all interactions and stages of the customer journey from the first day they consider your product or service until the last day they work with your company. The ability to post information (good or bad) instantaneously through social media has certainly impacted the importance of monitoring and addressing CX. Research suggests that 50% of customers will switch brands if there is another option, after just one bad experience, the number jumps to 80% after two bad experiences. You may never need your customers to literally give you money like George did, but you may need to have tough conversations about accounts receivable, changes in schedules, changes in products or services, or any other number of business issues. Customers who are engaged and view their CX as a positive experience are much more likely to trust you (the business) and work with you when “the unexpected” inevitably happens.

You and your business make a difference

With the help of George’s guardian angel Clarence. George is able to see how the choices he made throughout his life positively affected not only the town and people of Bedford Falls directly, but indirectly in ways he never imagined.     

Regardless of your product or service, there is some demand for your business or it would not exist. Most businesses are created with the goal of solving a problem. That is the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit, finding and filling a need with a product or service. Though, it is easy to debate if every product or service is really good for us. And yes, there are Mr. Potter’s out there. But choosing to believe that most businesses and those who work in them are trying to make a positive difference is enough to propose this challenge; have a conversation with your team about the results of their efforts, so they see their value and know their community (and in some cases, world) is a better place because of each of them and your business. The results may surprise you.

Well, what do you think?  Do these business lessons resonate with you? With your business? Are there other lessons from “It’s a Wonderful Life” that speak to you? As the Christmas Holiday Season draws near, we wish you and your families the very best and a wonderful prosperous new year!

As always please feel free to leave your comments in the space below. 

Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach