At the beginning of my seminars, I always ask class members to introduce themselves and explain why they came. Usually, I can sort the reasons for attending into three categories: those who want to learn and improve their skills; those who just want to get out of the store for a day; and those who have to because the boss made them come. The last group of attendees feels as if they’re prisoners.

You can always tell the “prisoners” by their demeanor. When they walk into the classroom their demeanor bellows, “I’ve been in this business 20 years. Come on! What are you going to teach me?”

That all-knowing, already-competent attitude is widespread among people who are actually incompetent. A Cornell University study showed that the people who think they know it all, really don’t. An I-already-know-everything attitude is a sure sign of a person’s incompetence.

Another study, undertaken by the Kinnard Communication Group, found that one of every two mediocre- and poor-performing salespeople (fully 50 percent) consider themselves outstanding or good performers. They wildly misjudge their level competence. Nearly all incompetent people don’t realize they are incompetent.

What’s been your recent attitude toward learning? Arrogant? Teachable?

When we started Mohawk University eight years ago, I saw that arrogant attitude too often. We struggled to persuade people to attend Mohawk University -- even when tuition was free. Lately, however, I’ve seen less of this. Even so, too many retailers still think they needn’t continue their education. They think they’ve been in this industry many years and have “learned it all.”

There have been times when Mohawk University has faced a dearth of retailer attendees. I know the courses are good, so why the lack of students? Is everyone too busy? Is there real truth in the saying, “Watch a retailer. See an indentured servant”? Or is it that most retailers think they already know it all?

What’s interesting is that the best retailers never use these excuses. They always seem to show up wherever they find an educational opportunity.

As I pondered the wealth of instruction that so many had skipped, I remembered a student’s response to me, years ago, about why he was there. “My business is doing well and, for awhile, I had been able to keep it growing,” he said. “But, for the last several years, it’s reached a plateau. I can’t seem to make it grow much more. I thought that if I attended this class, I might be able to learn something to help me move it up to the next level.”

Arriving at the plateau

That reminded me of a concept I learned more than 30 years ago. Developed from the research of Dr. Laurence J. Peter, it’s called the Peter Principle and it states, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence.”

Dr. Peter found that this principle controls all organizations. Within any organization, as an individual climbs the ladder, he or she moves up from a job requiring less competence to one requiring more. Eventually, Peter asserted, that individual will reach a position where he/she is incompetent. His/her personal skills and talents no longer suffice to enable him/her to succeed in the job, and he or she fails. I believe this principle applies to our industry, as well.

How many of us have made this fatal assumption: “If I can sell or lay carpet, I can run a carpet store.” Sadly, much later we learn the truth -- it takes different skills, knowledge and behaviors to run a business than it does to “do” the business in terms of selling and installing.

Have you, too, reached your level of incompetence? Has the Peter Principle bound you in its chains? And even if you honestly haven’t reached the plateau, is it possible that you might still become more effective?

The fatal assumption that running a business is the easy part has caused many storeowners to work until they burn out. When they realize they lack essential business knowledge and management skills, they compensate not by learning them but rather by working harder and longer at doing the business (selling and installing).

The result? The business fails to give them the freedom and independence they anticipated. Instead, the business makes the owner that proverbial “indentured servant.”

So how’s your business doing? Over the last three years, has it languished on the dreaded “sluggish plateau?” Or is it growing? If so, are profits growing as well as the revenues? And more importantly, is the business fulfilling your personal goals?

If you’d like to smash the Peter Principle chains that bind you, I know how you can get all the results anyone could reasonably expect from your business! You can extend your competence. You do so by increasing your knowledge and improving your skills. Of course, you’ve probably heard that already -- but what have you done about it in the last six months?

Taking action

Guess what? No one’s coming to your rescue. The only way you can move yourself and your company to the next higher level is to adopt a new schedule -- one that includes learning as part of every day. Remember the adage: If it is to be, it’s up to me. So start this week to make learning a part of your daily routine!

I recommend three courses of action. First, become a “student of the game.” Second, build a network. And finally, find a coach.

Mohawk Industries President Monte Thornton once told me, “The best are students of the game.” Average retailers never read a book or attend a seminar on retailing. That’s why they’re average. Becoming a student endows you with power, for knowledge is power. Knowledge begets power, because it gives you choices and alternatives.

Mohawk University, the World Floor Covering Association and other industry groups provide educational opportunities to learn about retailing and sales. Becoming a student of the game can lift you off your plateau and take you higher up the mountain.

As I mentioned, the second way to move your business to a higher level is to build a network. I find it interesting to watch class members network in my seminars. Most attendees share business cards and learn as much from each other as they do from me. Their new, informal networks provide enlightening ideas. As Oriental wisdom teaches: A wise man knows everything; a shrewd man knows everyone.

The fact is talent and education are not sufficient to assure success. They won’t propel you far enough. You need more than yourself. You need a network -- one that you build yourself. Harvey Mackay, the best-selling author of “How To Swim with the Sharks, Without Being Eaten Alive,” wrote, “No matter how smart you are, no matter how talented, you can’t do it alone.” I believe that!

As a child you may have been told not to talk to strangers. But if you hope to succeed at networking and finding a role model, you’d better make it a point to start talking to strangers at industry meetings. There’s no other way to build a network.

Finally, you can hire a coach or a consultant. Can you name 10 championship sports teams that won with no coach? Of course not! You can’t name even one. Likewise, can you name 10 successful storeowners and business leaders who had no coach or mentor during their careers?

Does the world’s best golfer have a coach? Yes. But who plays better -- Tiger Woods or his coach? Obvious as the answer is, Tiger still yearns to learn.

The fact is that everyone needs a coach (and everyone is a coach). To progress, we all need others’ feedback on our performance. Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions. Are you open to feedback, or are you someone who thinks he knows it all? Remember what the Cornell study revealed: Arrogance is an absolute sign of incompetence.

The Peter Principle is real. I believe it tethers many of us in ankle chains. I cheer the smart ones who devise ways to break those chains.

You don’t have to let your business stagnate on that dreaded plateau of incompetence. Remember: In this life, what determines your success is the people you know and the books you read. Shatter the shackles of the Peter Principle by becoming a student of the game, building a network and finding a coach.

If you snooze, you lose. With discipline, you win.