The future of ethics

The news seems to document a consistent parade of unethical behavior by executives. You see it both in “startups” (Uber, Theranos) and in more traditional large corporations. Even if you ignore Enron, Tyco, and the well-known cases, they’re in the news almost every week. Have you ever wondered how so many people with a severe lack of ethics managed to get into leadership / ownership positions? The reasons add up.

You hired them.

My answer? “You hired them.”

OK, maybe it wasn’t you specifically. Think back through your career. Any of us who have hired someone can probably think back to a time when something happened related to a hiring, a firing, or a delivery of discipline – and we let something go.

Without thinking hard about it, your natural response is probably “Nope, not me.” I suspect that would be my answer as well, so I decided I should think back a bit and provide some examples.

Was there ever a time when a resume didn’t seem 100% up and up? Maybe there was “a little something” that made you wonder. Did you investigate? If not, did you hire them anyway?

Was there ever a time when you didn’t speak with every reference on a resume? How many hires have you made where you didn’t talk to ANY of a candidate’s references? 

Have you ever assumed a degree listed on a resume was legitimate and decided not to take the time to confirm it? 

You didn’t fire them.

Have you decided not to fire someone who deserved it – and not because of paperwork or contract requirements? 

Have you ever said “No” when someone asked if they could work from home, even for a day? If you said no, was it because you didn’t believe they would actually work? Or perhaps because you didn’t believe they’d give you a full day’s work? If you can’t trust them to do that, how can you trust them at all?

Have you kept someone who deserved to be fired, only to see them repeat the behavior that you didn’t fire them for? 

While you might’ve thought that you were doing someone a favor, you may have encouraged them to continue that behavior. It’s also possible that you helped them see the light & turn things around. Only they know for sure. 

Hiring and not firing adds up

OK, so we can probably all remember maybe one of these situations. Perhaps you can recall seeing it happen as someone more senior overrode a decision you made. Or you watched them make the decision as a leader elsewhere in the company, but you had no input into it.  You might even have been a line employee who watched it happen with a new employee. Maybe you were told to “get a warm body ASAP” and pressured to make a hire before you were ready. 

No matter how it happened, it reinforces the bad and/or unethical behavior.

Thinking back, these little things may not seem important. They put something on their expense report that really shouldn’t have been there. It’s OK, they were on the road, etc, etc.

Reinforced bad behavior creates more instances of bad behavior.

Eventually, the size and scope of this behavior will increase as success is repeated. Why? When someone gets away with these things, they gain confidence to do it again. The more it happens, the more it seems normal. The more confidence they get, the bigger the reach.

But that isn’t the worst of it. What could be worse? Like many things, ethics has a network effect.

The network effect works for good & bad. Team members with poor ethics (at any level) likely have more tolerance of bad behavior from others. Once they get into a leadership role, are they going to come down on that sort of behavior?

Everyday ethics sends signals

Recently I suggested that when people tell you who they are (in words or via behavior), believe them. Everyday behavior sends signals to indicate how they’ll behave when you leave the room. IE: how they’ll act when you’re at lunch, out of town, or sick.

Which of your people do you feel you can trust while you’re gone? Discuss it with them. They need to know how you feel. It sends signals about your leadership.

PS: The rest of your team already knows about these folks.

The danger of detachment

Events in the world have been more frustrating than usual for a while. I hadn’t managed to put a finger on what’s different, until recently. Some people would say “it’s the left“. Others will claim “it’s the right“. While the reality is a mix of both, that’s not what I’m referring to. Some would suggest that “it seems worse than it used to be” and that most of that is because we’re far more aware of things than we were in the past. Of course, this comes thanks to changes in how news is distributed – and how quickly. Also true. However, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to something that crosses over – affecting politics, business and much more. It’s detachment.

What’s a “frustrating” event? I’m talking about recurring, widespread activities that you might find aggravating, disgusting, dishonest, unethical (the usual “winner”), etc. As I dig deeper, I’ve become convinced that detachment is at the root of a lot of problems. 

What about detachment is a problem?

Detachment acts as insulation. It creates distance between people. It’s particularly good at creating distance between groups. By distance, I mean  a weaker relationship or no relationship at all. Less understanding. Less intimacy – not romance-wise, but a lower level of comfort.

Think about a flood on the other side of the world in a country you’ve never visited. Many people probably lost their homes and everything they own. While it’s a shame and you feel bad for them when you see the video of what’s going on, the reality is that it doesn’t affect you all that much. Most people will move on. Life’s chasing them around. Right here, right now.

When the distance shrinks

The situation changes when the affected people are family, friends or co-workers.

Imagine that flooded home belongs to one of your employees or a family member. Your perspective changes. Now it isn’t about people you’ll never know in a place you’ll may never be. You know them, their kids and you’re a part of each other’s lives. You aren’t detached because you have a relationship with that person and possibly their family. Moving on will take a while. Perhaps a long while, even if they work at your Houston office rather than south of Bangalore.

That’s how detachment insulates us. 

Insulation equals distance

When you know the people involved, your detachment may not be eliminated, but it’s reduced significantly because the situation affects people you know and/or work with. 

To get right down to it, detachment (like distance) gives us “permission” not to care as much, or at all. Not everyone uses that permission, but many do. In some cases, it gives people permission to care so little that the other person / group can eventually be positioned as our enemy. 

Even if we work for the same company. Sometimes,  even though we’re part of the same family. 

Again: The insulation of detachment gives us permission to care less, or not care at all, even about family members or co-workers. 

This detachment is especially dangerous when you have remote employees because it can work both ways. The distance can help them become detached from you and while you simultaneously become detached from them. 

It can kill a company’s culture, particularly one with remote workers or multiple locations. 

Detachment dehumanizes

The worst feature of detachment is that it dehumanizes the people we work with and the customers we serve. 

Ever heard anyone talk in dehumanizing terms about an opponent, a competitor, or someone with different political differences? Sure you have. “Animal” is a common term you’ll hear, but there are numerous terms that can do the trick. All you have to do is pick a word that you’d (hopefully) never call them to their face if they were a family member, customer or co-worker. These terms let us position other people and other groups as if they’re something to be discarded like trash.

That’s what dehumanizing them allows.

Detachment induced dehumanization can have effects that are much worse. We see it every day, but may not recognize it for what it is. 

Exterminate it.

I’ve seen so much of it, even in business, that I am convinced that it’s essential to exterminate it. Take aggressive steps to identify and destroy it. It’s that dangerous to your business. 

Between a rock and a hard place

Labor Day seems like a good time to talk about…. labor. Montana has a few labor conflicts going on right now. A commonly solution to such problems is for the employees to organize. In other words, they’d become employees subject to collective bargaining done on their behalf by their labor union.

Why do my employees want a union?

First, let’s talk about how an employer might find themselves in a place where their employees want to organize.

There are a number of reasons why your employees would want to be in a union. The best reason is that you hire skilled plumbers, electricians, riggers, iron workers, welders, etc. In other words, you need people with highly specific skills. These skills are usually in heavy demand – and today is no exception. Trade unions have historically been a great resource for training and managing the full career life cycle for highly skilled workers like those described above.

However, trade unions aren’t typically the ones you often hear about in the news. Instead, you probably hear more about organized labor unions. A fair percentage of them were provoked to organize due to poor behavior on the part of the employer. 

What provokes employees to organize? Poor pay and benefits are obvious, but it sometimes goes beyond that. Poor leadership, which often creates a culture no one would choose to be a part of. Pushing everyone to fewer than 30 hours a week so that you can avoid some benefit costs. Consistently using inconvenient scheduling such as split shifts. Cutting staff to the point where employees can’t take the vacation time they’ve accrued. Creating separately organized companies for groups of employees. This is done to avoid hitting “headcount” thresholds that require additional employee benefits and/or record keeping. 

When not to organize

Recently, a situation has arisen in Montana where a company told its people that they must either lay off the majority of their employees or close the business. This business was purchased a short time ago by a company who owns many businesses in their market. 

It seems clear that the purchased business (a former competitor) was bought to remove them from the market. Happens all the time. Now the purchased “sort of competitive” (my words) business is being killed off. Employees affected by this are trying to organize a union. This tactic is intended to prevent layoffs and/or avoid closure of the business. 

I don’t believe organizing is a viable long-term solution to this problem. When negotiating, it’s important to be able to trust whoever you’re working with. Avoiding negotiations with such parties is recommended unless you simply have no choice. If they plan to shutdown, how well will negotiations go?

Will it work?

Applicable wisdom: “When people tell you or show you who they are, believe them.

This company has consistently demonstrated what to believe about them.  They buy decades-old, locally owned businesses, then slash staff and ship many of the jobs out of state. The work these businesses do doesn’t benefit from remote work. Doing this work from out of town actually puts the business at a significant competitive advantage.

Organizing a union with a company like that is probably going to result in employees being treated poorly within the terms of their contract.  That’s if they succeed in getting organized before the company shuts down the business. I think that’s a long shot. I don’t believe organization is going to stop this company from completing their shutdown plans.

The path to a long term solution for these employees is probably to start a competitor. I know it won’t be easy. 

Difficulty created in advance

It gets tough when employees decide they need to organize when there’s almost no chance that the business is closing. The relationship between the company and employees just before organization is usually sour. Leadership needs to look in the mirror during these situations. A little research into what happened prior to organization might help. The patterns are fairly consistent, even if the details vary. 

If your team feels like they’re the enemy, organization is a likely solution they’ll choose. People want consistency. They want some security that they’ll be around next month. Fear based management is a fast path to resentment and your team lacking any feeling of security.

Ego-free discussion between all parties is likely the sole route to business survival.

Update: Tuesday Sept 11, 2018
A single day after this post was published and 17 months after buying the business discussed above, the corporate parent locked the doors of the business and closed it. With no advance notice of the closure, they emailed all the employees telling them that the business was closed (they also called some and left voicemail). Employees were told not to visit the office and that they could make an appointment to pick up their things. They are paying their salaries until early October 2018. In other words, their behavior has not changed, as predicted.

A Labor Day perspective on performance

This is a little long, but bear with me, even if you aren’t into football. The football details are just a setup.

Written by ESPN’s Matthew Berry about drafting fantasy football players, think about this when dealing with your team.

“Quarterback A is, well, a work in progress. And that’s being kind. There were 31 quarterbacks last season who had at least one game with at least 22.5 points. C.J. Beathard, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler were among the QBs who reached that threshold at least once. Quarterback A did not. He failed to throw multiple TD passes in seven of his final 11 games and he finished poorly, tying Joe Flacco on a fantasy points-per-game basis in the second half of last season. While averaging 10 percent fewer pass attempts in wins last season than losses, the less our guy did in the passing game, the better the team did on the field, which is good for his NFL team, bad for us. Is this the end of the line for the veteran QB? His 2016 sure seems like a fluke after his touchdown pass total in 2017 fell by 36 percent from the previous year (he had fewer TDs than Andy Dalton, for Pete’s sake), and his QBR dropped for a third consecutive season. Despite playing all 16 games, he still had his lowest rushing total in five seasons, but don’t think that means his passing is improving. Last season was not only his first with his current team without a completion of 55-plus yards, but also his worst in terms of air yards per pass attempt. Given the state of the NFL, it makes sense why his NFL team has to trot him out this year, but that doesn’t mean you have to.

Meanwhile, Quarterback B is one of those set it and forget it, draft him early and don’t worry about it types. Another year with more than 4,000 passing yards, another year of being top 10 in pass attempts. This QB always airs it out and that’s good for fantasy players. Because when he throws, it’s high quality. Last season, he was top three in the NFL in completion percentage, completion percentage on play-action and red zone completion percentage. And you see that high completion percentage and I bet you think he’s a dink-and-dunk guy, right? Nope, our guy also led the NFL in yards per attempt last season. He’s consistent as they come. In his many seasons with his current team, he has never been outside the top 12 in terms of total touchdown passes, even in the seasons he got hurt. A weekly warrior last season, he posted the lowest interception rate of his career and played in all 16 games. In fact, only one other qualifying QB who played all 16 games threw fewer interceptions. When you keep the ball, good things happen, which explains why, over the past three years, only five QBs have more weekly top-two finishes than our guy. He can single-handedly win you a week, which explains why he’s top five in total fantasy points over the past three years as well. Instead of trying to play the matchups each week, just draft Quarterback B and never worry about the position again.

So, which quarterback do you want this year?

Realize that every single thing I wrote about each player is true.

Which one do you want? Go ahead and pick. Think you know which guy you want? Feel confident one guy is significantly better than the other? Know which of these two guys you would draft and why?

Fair enough, but before you click “draft,” you should probably know one other fact.

Quarterback A’s name is Drew Brees.

And Quarterback B? Well, that’s also Drew Brees.

Yeah.”

http://www.espn.com/fantasy/football/story/_/page/TMR100facts2018/fantasy-football-100-facts-consider-2018-season

The point? Hire well and remember that how you look at your team and their work changes how they appear.

PS: Yes, I realize the QB in the photo isn’t Drew:)

Marketing automation won’t save you

We’ve talked about marketing automation on and off over the years. On any number of occasions, I’ve suggested that you use these tools because they can help you get things done that most businesses simply can’t (or won’t) get done any other way. That’s still true. Even so, it’s important to understand that buying and deploying marketing automation isn’t a cure-all. 

Adjusting expectations

Marketing automation firm ads like to imply that their tools are the reason that a company’s revenue, lead volume, etc are growing like crazy. One look at these lofty figures tempts you to dive right in, assuming that the automation is going to save your bacon. It won’t.

Some assert that their clients’ revenue has grown by xx percent and try to leave the impression that this happened simply because they turned on their software. Not quite. 

You need to understand why I say “It won’t” and “Not quite”, so let’s talk about what marketing automation can do, and what it won’t do. Having proper expectations is crucial. 

Marketing automation can and won’t…

Marketing automation is a great thing – particularly when used well. In my mind, the two best reasons to automate your marketing are to improve the consistency of delivery of your marketing message, and to learn what’s working.

It’s easy for a business owner to forget to send a sales email,  newsletter, postcard, or follow up email. If you use any sort of customer service software, you know exactly what I mean. Customer service software helps you stay on top of service requests. Result: customers and their needs don’t get forgotten in the chaos of a busy day. Ever gotten sidetracked and forgotten to email a particular group about an upcoming event or sale? The wrong time to figure out that you forgot to send email invites is when you see a small turnout at an event. Improved consistency of delivery makes a big difference.

If a vending machine takes your money and gives you nothing, you wouldn’t put another dollar in it. When you start receiving data proving that certain advertising gives you nothing in return… your decision is similar. You fix it, or you stop using it. Learning what works changes everything. It tells you where to spend and where not to spend. Marketing automation software is pretty good at making that easier.

Marketing automation won’t write emails for you. It won’t make your emails better (sort of – more on that later). It won’t put your marketing on autopilot. Autopilot implies “push one button, take a nap until it’s time to land the plane“. You DO have to set it up and regularly attend to it. However, it won’t make you manually sort through user lists, or deal with a number of manual tasks that none of us have time for. While it can automatically take action based on an event, you have to set that up. 

Do something. 

One of the benefits of marketing automation software is that it requires you to DO SOMETHING. When you spend money on something that can send emails at just the right moment, you have to have written and queued these emails. That’s not the same as looking at a fast approaching payroll date and semi-randomly rushing out a marketing email or calling someone to buy an ad (yes, it happens).

Likewise, while these tools can post to social media for you on a day when you’re too busy to do it, you have to have already written and queued that post.

In the presence of automation something interesting happens: we have to be better prepared. The power these tools provide “obligates” you to develop some marketing discipline. That’s what I meant earlier when I said marketing automation tools won’t improve your emails “sort of”. With advance prep and consideration, your email and other messages are certain to become more effective.

Circling back to the “credit” that marketing automation firms claim, well, some of that goes to you. “Accidental” marketing rarely works well, so a portion of the gains from automated marketing are due to better preparation.

Marketing automation won’t save you by itself, yet it’s quite likely to improve results if you prepare well, use the tools, & take action on the data produced. Combined with what’s in your head, these tools will help you find more of the people who need the solutions you offer.

Why role specific training matters

Last week in “Reflecting on Leadership“, I said “The more I thought about it, the more disturbing this reflection became. I thought back to any number of employers and client businesses and the training they offered to new team members. Training was never about preparing a new (albeit, sometimes experienced) employee to succeed / survive IN THE ACTUAL SITUATION / ROLE.

It’s important to unwrap this & explain why I find this disturbing.

Why “disturbing”?

I said “disturbing” because the short and long term impact of this lack of role specific training hit me. It impacts the company’s success, the employee’s short term success in the role, and the employee’s career in the long term.

Think about the perspective of the employee who steps up. Employees might be stepping outside of their comfort zone in order to take a shot at this role. While access to opportunity is important, employees like to help their company & manager by filling an important role. Consider the potential chaos created by the departure of someone with “big shoes to fill”. Everyone knows the impact of that departure – yet someone is likely to volunteer to take on that role.  Employees who step up to fill a role created by increased workload feel similarly. 

From the owner’s perspective, each of those situations imply that success in the role is important to your company. An existing staffer who steps up deserves to be well-prepared for the role.

What happens if someone who “steps up” to take on a new role is “thrown to the wolves”? The natural response is that other employees will be less likely to step up when the opportunities present themselves. Eventually, the perceived lack of opportunity will provoke them to leave your company. 

They reflect what we teach.

The lack of role-specific training teaches the employee what “normal” is. As their career continues, they’re likely to manage others – and will likely do so as they have been managed. There will be exceptions, of course, but our own experience tends to be our teacher. Consider the long-time employee who becomes one of your senior leaders. Would you want them based role-specific training decisions based on the training they received? 

Anything you do is everything you do. It all ties together. 

Employees who join other companies in your industry send a message. Not because they left you, but by reflection. Their skill set, experience and how they work reflects upon your company. Your peers and your customers will eventually figure out that your team is “making it up as they go along”, if that’s how things work. Poorly trained people are easy to notice. 

What about seasoned staffers?

You might expect them to step in and “hit the ground running” since you selected them because of their background & experience (among other things). Even so, experience & background aren’t everything. New team members joining from “the outside” should take part in discussions about your company’s culture, resources, role expectations, etc before a hiring decision is made. Culture is a critical piece for experienced people. Behaviors expected / tolerated elsewhere can cause failure of a new team member as if they never had a chance. 

Avoiding the blank sheet

While the specifics of role specific training will vary, some topics likely occur across industries.

Examples to get you started:

  • Specific duties of this role on a daily / weekly / quarterly / annual basis.
  • Process-specific training required to succeed. 
  • Where / how do the duties in this role fit into its department? 
  • How does this role’s work fit into and contribute to the company’s big picture / mission?
  • Information / data received regularly.
  • Which events to be concerned about.
  • What events to expect.
  • Events you should be concerned about – if they don’t happen.
  • Data the company creates and/or collects that’s related to this role.
  • Expected deliverables & their due dates.
  • Sources of industry info that should be monitored.
  • Industry influencers to interact with / follow.
  • Available ongoing training / certifications needed.
  • Company’s policy on getting initial & advanced training. Time out of office, travel, tuition, reimbursement, etc. 
  • Time normally required in this role before going to advanced role specific training.
  • Company experts (in this role’s context) and the person whose job requirements include mentoring the person in this role.
  • Internal company groups related to this role / department. When / where they meet. What to gain from them. Insight they need. 

What ideas / suggestions do you have?

Reflecting on leadership

Recently, I’ve been catching up on the Jocko podcast. Jocko is a former Seal who has built a leadership training business. 

As you might imagine, the podcast tends to focus on military leadership. Sometimes there are guests on the show, sometimes they’re going over a book, which could be anything from recent works to a Chinese essay called The 36 Stratagems from 400 B.C. The discussions regularly turn toward how a business (and the listener) can leverage what’s learned during the talks with guests or the book being discussed. 

Listening to Jocko and guests – including men who lead platoons as far back as WWII (including one who lead teams in WWII, Korea & Vietnam), it’s interesting to see the parallels between the work of military leaders in the field & leadership in business – particularly when the latter is being done right.  One recent anecdote reflects on the current trend to badmouth “unmotivated millennials”, drawing a parallel between leading them and leading draftees in Vietnam.  

One thing recently stood out. There have been several discussions about what the guests see as their most important job as a leader, or as their most important / highest impact leadership role.

A substantial number have been training roles.

Things like training a team heading to Afghanistan based on the experiences of a team that returned recently so that when they get to their deployment, they already know the tactics necessary to succeed (and stay alive) rather than having to learn them from scratch while under fire.

It struck me that I couldn’t recall such a targeted situational / role oriented training going back 35 years – except at my first job back in early ’80s. That was at EDS, which at the time had a fair number of  former military as employees. Their training of new technical employees assumed you knew nothing (and many did). I watched music, foreign language & history majors become solid programmers in a few months. It was like boot camp for geeks, without the ten mile hikes.

EDS was preparing their new employees to “go into battle”, where the battle was taking on production tasks, supporting their apps, reviewing changes with others before the change was made, programming new things, etc. All of this was designed not just to make sure someone knew how to program, but to make sure new employees weren’t going to fail miserably in their first assignment. That’s a far cry from simply teaching someone how to program and then turning them loose with office supplies and a “Good luck!“.

The more I thought about it, the more disturbing this reflection became.

I thought back to any number of employers and client businesses and the training they offered to new team members. Training was never about preparing a new (albeit, sometimes experienced) employee to succeed / survive IN THE ACTUAL SITUATION / ROLE.

Nope.

Instead, the training was about how to get stuff from HR (if that), & perhaps the system managed by the team they’d be joining, oh & a pile of manuals, maybe.

This training was usually the MINIMUM that the company could get away with, if there was any training at all. Training isn’t “If you have questions, ask so-and-so.” A lot of this “training” happened when someone was taking on a role from a person leaving the company. I wonder what they forgot to tell the new person, even unintentionally. 

I thought back to this summer’s point of sale (POS) issues, where all but senior employees were struggling with the POS system. People at stores across several states made the same mistakes. It’s clear that the senior managers in these stores were trained or senior enough to figure it out. It was also clear that most employees received poor training (if any).  

Are you training your new staff to succeed in their situation / role, or are you cool with letting them fail until they figure it out? Combat team training ROI is obvious. Lives and mission objectives are at stake. 

Your training ROI is likely a bit less extreme. It might only be about lost orders or customers. Some training-related failures could have a higher price. What’s the best training you ever received for a role you were about to take on? Why wouldn’t you want a new employee to be prepared to succeed in their role at the highest possible level? Is that training too expensive?

If you lead people & you care, check out Jocko’s podcast. 

What’s your secret?

Has anyone ever asked you what your secret is? It’s kind of like being asked about your superpower. It goes something like this: “Wow. That’s really something. I could never do that. (pause while they work up to asking….) What’s your secret?” 

I’m guessing this happens to you right after you’ve done something that you’ve done so many times and for so long that you could do it seconds after I woke you from a deep sleep at two in the morning (after you yell at me for waking you, of course).

Why do they want your secret?

While they don’t realize it, asking this question is usually about them looking for a shortcut. Sometimes “I could never do that” translates to “that isn’t important enough for me to practice for years (like you have) so that they can be as good as you.” Mostly it’s wishful thinking that there’s a secret to your skill and expertise. 

Can you imagine the answer you’d get if you asked your favorite musician about the secret to being an unbelievable musician? 

I’m guessing they’d tell you that they’ve played their instrument since the seventh grade, if not longer. They might even tell you that they hated it at first and perhaps even hated it a little later. Those days are gone now. They know that it’s become a part of them and that they’ll do it as long as they can – even if no one listens to them anymore. Possibly the worst thing you could do to them these days would be to take their instrument away for the rest of their life.

Shortcuts exist, but …

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help or seeking a shortcut, but expertise isn’t developed through shortcuts. It might help you get there, but developing expertise is about one thing. Practice. It might not be hard work, but you need the experience to gain the expertise. 

You can show someone a shortcut, but you can’t give them expertise. Expertise is learned.

Shortcuts can accelerate your learning process. They’ll probably help you avoid a few mistakes or skip a few things in the learning process – but they can’t make you the expert. Only doing the thing creates that level of skill. You can watch YouTube videos of Bob the curly haired guy painting happy little trees for weeks, but until you pick up a brush and start painting, you’re not getting anywhere. 

Taking shortcuts is useful when learning, but are seldom useful when it comes to developing a valuable skill that people will pay “your price” for, and without complaining.  

Do the thing. Over and over.

Do you know how to become a better hiker? By hiking. Does it help if you eat better, workout, etc? Those things will help you become healthier, stronger and better able to hike more, but they don’t make you a better hiker. Hiking does that.

The same goes for playing an instrument, drawing cartoons (something I’ve been thrashing away at for the almost a year), marketing, ice climbing, kayaking, cutting down trees, working metal, building web sites, or making a perfect sous vide steak.

Doing the thing that you want to become an expert at doing. Doing it again. Even when you’re horrible.

Educate yourself, practice the thing, repeat the process. Do the thing. Keep doing it until people start asking you what your secret is. Then keep doing it.

The other secret

There’s one more thing that grows your expertise: Teaching.

Teaching others what you know is a powerful way to refine your expertise and see it in a whole new way. Some say that you really don’t know a subject until you’ve taught it. Perhaps.

If nothing else, teaching the skill or subject that you’re an expert in will certainly remind you of the baseline skills you’ve taken for granted for years. Questions from those new to your expertise (ie: newbies, or “noobs”) will often shake you a bit. They tend to make you rethink that which you know so well. They’ll ask, horror of horrors, “Why do you do it that way?

Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes the answer to that question is the shortcut they never knew they were looking for. Sometimes, reflecting on and changing how someone looks at a problem or a challenge is the best shortcut of all.

The Self-Managing Business

If you get enough email from “gurus” and you see enough Facebook ads, you will find yourself reading discussions about that unicorn of unicorns, the self-managing business. It sounds amazing. “You mean I’ll have the freedom to go skiing, hiking, or fishing and when I return, my business will better than it was when I left?” Yes, they say. If you dig deep enough, they will begrudgingly admit that your business will be no worse than it was when you left. In some cases, that’s normal because the business actually gets more and better work done when you’re gone. But they leave out a lot of detail, or more often, people read far more into the title than is really there.

The four hour work week

Take Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week. Tim’s built an integrated team and systems that allow him to spend his best, most productive four hours of the week working on things he loves to do that no one else in his business can do as well as he can. It’s real work to create systems and train people to work autonomously, or at least close to autonomously. It’s worth it, of course. He shows how to build a business that lets you work from anywhere. Could you turn your bait shop into an absentee business? Sure – if you’re put the time into developing systems and training people.

However, it isn’t just about training people to do the work. That’s the easy part. If you are truly going to disappear, someone will need to make decisions for you. Presumably, you’ll want their decisions to be the same ones you would have made. Otherwise, it becomes more like the business of the people you left behind, not the business of the person taking the three week horsepacking trip. Upon your return, you might not like what you find.

What does self-managing business mean?

To some, it means that all the stuff that can be automated has been automated. A self-managing car might drive itself to the dealer (or your preferred mechanic) if it detected a problem that wasn’t enough that it meant the car couldn’t be driven. It might know when to get gas (etc) – and to go to a station that offers full-service, since it can’t fill itself from a standard pump.

It isn’t simply about automation. Automation simply buys time / speed, and reduces / eliminates human error. While automation is getting better every day, someone has to tell it what you want it to do. The same must be said about your staff. They need to be told HOW you want things to be done, but also, how to decide and prioritize those things. Everything, in fact.

Making decisions is also work. Sometimes it’s the work that makes a difference for the business – and it’s often the kind of work that repeatedly pays off. So how do you replace that?

Being Like Mike

This is the real work of “systematizing” a business. Building & implementing automated systems isn’t nearly enough. You need people who are prepared & ready to make decisions close to as fast as you do, based the same points and considerations you use, and after all that – make the same decision you would have made (mostly).

Until they do that consistently, how can you leave for a month?

Write down a short note about the last five decisions you made. I don’t mean major like “we bought a competitor”. I’m referring to the kind of decisions you make daily or weekly. With list in hand, take your best staffer for a walk. For each decision on the list, put your staffer in the scenario you were in, provide them with whatever info you had, and then ask them to make the decision they thought you would make. Now ask them to tell you how they arrived at that decision. After a few decisions, is the staffer on track?

If they aren’t, think about the training that’s necessary to get them there. Are your managers ready for that? If you left for a week, would they have the data, tools and decision-making process (from yours) to make it for a week without calling, texting, or emailing you?

Start slowly. Train them, give them the autonomy they need, & coach them. When they’re “ready enough”, start leaving them for longer and longer stretches.

Photo by Colynn

What makes your customers safe?

We have attorneys, insurance, OSHA, safety regulations, procedures, safety gear, training, etc to help us protect our business, while keeping our staff members & customers safe. We know that in some markets, someone still might get hurt despite all our preparation, training, safety equipment, etc.

If you run a hotel with a pool, offer zip line rides, take people on boat rides / float trips, lead hikes or offer horseback rides into the backcountry, there are obvious risks, but almost every business has some level of risk like this. Have you wondered how you’d respond if something horrific happen to your customers while they were at your place of business? It’s one of a few worst possible nightmares for a business owner. Could you, much less your business, recover from something like that? Could your staff?

There are (and will continue to be) a lot of what ifs related to the recent duck boat disaster in Branson. It’s difficult to comprehend, much less try to relate to what the victims’ families, the employees and the business owner are going through. While it’s the worst possible time for all involved, the rest of us owe it to ourselves, our team, and our customers to learn from it.

If your business involves activities that could put your employees and/or customers in a scenario where they could get hurt, you should watch the process closely as they talk to the media, address safety issues that are discovered, and change processes while customers are in their care.

Review. Look for clues. Ask for help.

What you’re able to see from the public perspective of this accident will help, but the opportunity to learn won’t stop there. There will likely be additional considerations discussed by your advisors that they will want to share with you. As an example, you’ll want to talk to your attorney, insurance agents, licensing and related safety enforcement agencies, as well as industry groups.

As details come out about what went wrong in Branson, you may find subtle gaps in your tools, gear, processes, inspections, or training. Even if you have 40 years of experience in your business, as the boat tour business does, you can still learn from the lessons and discoveries that come out of this.

Your customers know they’re putting themselves at risk to take part in adventures. They expect your team to be experts. Reviewing your current procedures, training and equipment use is at least as important as making sure that you’ve developed enough of a sales pipeline to have the necessary cash flow to make payroll three months from now.

One more critical tool

There’s more to this than safety equipment and training.

When bad things happen, time has a way of changing. For some people, time stands still, or more commonly, slows down a good bit. For others, it accelerates.

It’s easy to find stories about highly accomplished people (athletes and others) who describe what happens when they get really good. They’ll say the game or activity “slows down”. It means that they are so ready, so fit, so well-trained, and so mentally prepared that the activity feels as if they have plenty of time to do whatever they’re good at. It looks easy when they do it because to them, it is. For the rest of us, the game or activity feels like it keeps getting faster and faster. When we try to keep up at a pace we aren’t used to, we start making mistakes.

Leadership works this way too.

When bad things happen, preparation slows things down. When you’re the owner and 20 people are asking questions at once, preparation, experience, and practice help you keep your bearings, calm everyone, and handle the questions.

You aren’t the only one who needs this preparation. Your ENTIRE team needs leadership training. When everyone else panics (and perhaps rightfully so), they will need leaders to help them find a safe way out. Leave no one out. That kid in produce might be the one who takes charge and guides your customers to safety when the worst happens.

Train your entire team. All of them will need one another to get through it, both during the event, and afterward. You’ll need their leadership most of all. If the worst never happens, you still have a team of leaders. Your customers will notice.

Photo by Symic