Knowledge loss – The pain of brain drain

I had a conversation about “brain drain” with an old friend this week. “Brain drain” is the loss of business-specific and/or industry-specific knowledge suffered due to employee attrition. When experienced people leave a company, they take their brains with them – including all their knowledge and experience. Losing specialized knowledge can be painful even when someone isn’t moving to a competitor or starting a competitive firm.

My friend’s customers tend to be large, with thousands of employees. He has a tool for collecting data about the workflow, business structures, and processes in these organizations. The data becomes a logical representation of the business – a model. That model (database) describes the company’s jobs, work, roles, “work products”, etc. It’ll eventually help you identify connections between those components of the company. Collecting the data is a significant effort, but this is understandable. Large, complex organizations are extremely difficult to fix, much less keep running on their own. Having a reference for what the company does, how it does those things, and how it communicates is essential. A model or reference allows you to create consistency. It identifies the systems and tools will help the company improve their performance. It serves as a lens that brings the company’s inner machinery into focus. The effort and payoff both grow as the organization size increases. This effort (and it’s price) also mean it’s something a small business would almost never do. 

Small business brain drain – a foregone conclusion?

Brain drain can create nightmares for small businesses as well, but you don’t need massive processes and expensive tools to tackle it. How do you protect yourself from this? Use the same type of process, without the expense.

Identify the roles your team has. In a small business, people tend to wear multiple hats. Each one of those is a role. If you’re small, you might have someone who fills five roles during their work week. What skills and training will a future new hire need to successfully perform this role? What processes and tools will be involved? Is experience and/or training required? Someday you might be big enough to make that role require a full time person. For the processes they must perform in that role, is there a checklist? Is there a form?

Experience hides

Lots of knowledge is buried in undocumented business processes & related timelines. When finally documented, you’ll find innate knowledge that’s been seared into the team from unknown people or situations. There will be “we do it this way but I don’t recall why”. You’ll learn about long-held (possibly valid) assumptions passed down among team members that no one’s documented. Information hides inside experienced people who for years have done their job, refined processes, and trained a new co-workers. Many lessons go undocumented, despite being learned over many years of work. They came from the impact of many small refinements over time, thanks to lessons they learned along the way. This “what and how but not why” is unintentionally hidden from management, carefully sequestered in unwritten job descriptions.

We hide this knowledge in forms and their workflow. It hides in unwritten, but known expectations, and in undocumented metrics that someone here probably understands. Sometimes there’s data available, sometimes there isn’t. Some of this data is never used because we didn’t have the time, tools, or desire to learn from it. Much of this data is documentation of what we and our team members do every day.

Once you identify each role, follow the paper trail in your business. It’ll tell a story. Follow the data. Ask why of your data, your forms, your processes, and your people. Document the answers, the reasons, the surprises, and the gaps. This information has real value, so keep it up to date.

What the hurt looks like

If an experienced team member retires, quits, spends a week in the hospital, or takes a leave to care for a family member this month, how will you…

  • Get their work done.
  • Recover the knowledge of what they did and knew not to do.
  • Meet the deadlines they own.
  • Maintain their contacts/relationships inside/outside the company.
  • Deal with vendors & internal/external customers who are suddenly not being attended to / hassled appropriately / held accountable / cared for / paid / billed, etc.

Someone will leave sooner than you expect or hope. Get ready.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

The power of delegating

How much of what your company does absolutely MUST be done by you? How many hours a week do you spend doing those things? What if you could do 10-20 more hours of that per month. After a few months, what if you refined that new ability three or four times? Think hard about that. At that point, you would be able to spend 10-20 hours more per week on the things you and only you must do. How would that change your business? For that matter, how would it change your life? I learned this magic from a mentor who is pretty demanding about getting people to work on the things they’re best at – and nothing else. While not everyone can do that much delegating right off the bat, this process still leaves plenty of opportunity to gain valuable time to do the work no one else can do. 

Choose someone else

Perfecting the art of delegation (or at least refining it) is something that takes time. Identifying everything you do that can be done by others… doesn’t. If that seems tough, just identify the few things you do that no one, absolutely no one, can do for you. Now it’s easy: delegate everything else.

Yep, that simple. Start with the easy stuff.

Say you want to send flowers to your mom for her birthday. You can call the florist in the town where she lives and work it out with them. Maybe you prefer to call 1-800 whatever, or a local florist and ask them to make it happen. Or you can do none of that – and delegate the task to someone with as much or little detail as you like. Your mom doesn’t care that you didn’t make the phone call. She’s happy you remembered her and thought enough to send flowers.

You might be thinking “that was only 10 minutes on the phone”. Or 15. Or 20. Plus following up, if needed. Whatever. The time for this one task isn’t all that relevant. Look at the big picture and add them up. The point isn’t how much this one task takes. It’s about how many tasks like this are consuming your time each month.

Turn it up, by turning it around

Once you start getting into the groove of delegating, it’ll get easier over time. Thing is, there’s a way to completely rethink the process and realign how you look at new projects. When a new task or project pops up, think first about who else (ie: not you) can do the work – unless the work is on that (probably) short list of things that only you can do. Who else can manage it? Plan it? Track it? Lots of people, right? Let someone else do those things. They’re important, but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t do them. You focus on the portion of the project that’s work for you – and nothing else.

Multiplying the impact

Want to take this a bit further and multiply the impact? Start teaching it to your managers and skilled team members who get distracted / side-tracked by work that someone else could do.

You might be wondering “If everyone is delegating this work, won’t that require more people?” Yes, it might.

Thing is, if your managers and highly-skilled team members are doing enough of this work that it requires one or more people to complete it, that’s a problem. It means that your managers aren’t spending all of their time managing (hard to imagine, right?) Instead, they’re doing work that someone else can do. It also means your highly-skilled team members are spending an inordinate amount of time on things that other team members can do.

For managers, the problem is that when people, projects, relationships, and product delivery isn’t managed well, the entire company is affected. In the case of highly-skilled team members, we’re talking about high value, high cost, high return on investment work. Any time your highly-skilled team members are spending time on other tasks, they’re getting more expensive by the minute. Worse yet, they become more expensive when they spend time on random tasks that have nothing to do with their skill. Removing any non-core task from these folks increases their value and allows them to contribute more to the company’s bottom line. In some cases, this newly found time opens up sales opportunities because these folks can produce more of the thing you hired them to do.

Photo by Sayan Nath on Unsplash

Retiring business owners

I consistently meet business owners who are about to retire, considering retirement, just retired, or are somewhere between those places.
I suspect this happens because I’m on the north side of 50. No matter the reason for these encounters, I wish retiring business owners planned a bit more for the run up to retirement. They tend to have the personal side of things handled. On the business side, my experience is that the typical retiring business owner plans to either close the business down, pass it to family, or find a buyer when they decide it’s retirement time. In some cases, there isn’t a lot of advance thought into the approach to this possibly massive change in the business.

You might be thinking that you don’t necessarily care about likely changes that can occur after the sale – no matter their nature. Thing is, buyers do care. Buyers write a check or get a loan for a presumably large sum of money. Getting a good return on that investment is always on their mind.

Employees also care about the changes that can come with a buyout. Things that create concerns among new owners are staff morale, the staff’s surprise to find that there’s a new owner, the staff’s concerns about the viability of the business, etc. “Why’d they sell it?” “Are we going to lose our jobs?” “What about the redundant positions between the two companies?” “Will there be staff cuts?” As a retiring business owner, your mind is elsewhere. This may seem like it isn’t worth worrying about. Even so, these concerns are quite normal. Think back to the days when you were an employee.

Employees and changes

Employees always have concerns when a business changes hands. It’s not hard to find stories broken promises made when a large business is bought by a new owner or merged with another. Everything is champagne & roses at the press conference in an effort to keep everyone calm & avoid disrupting the business. Employees aren’t dumb. They’ve seen friends & family deal with these situations. They’ll be understandably concerned that they’re in for the same. If you don’t have experience with this, ask around. I doubt it’ll be hard to find someone who’s had a bad experience with this. Anyone from Columbia Falls can explain it.

Morale is always a concern. New owners bring a new culture to the business. The change may or may not be positive. If your staff doesn’t have to worry about that once the sale is announced, they’ll be less distracted & concerned. They’re less likely to be involved in gossip about what might / might not happen with the “mysterious” new owner. This may seem silly to worry about, but people work for you for a reason & money isn’t all of it.

If you’re nearing retirement age, your team has already wondered what you’re doing with the business at retirement. They just haven’t asked you. You might think it’s none of their business, but they often ARE your business.

Before finding a buyer

Finding a buyer sometimes happens quickly. For some, it can take years, which can be excruciating to a wanna-be retiring business owner. There are so many dependencies. Sometimes it comes down to luck. Someone happens to know someone who is ready to buy and things simply happen to match up.

Make sure your business is truly ready to be sold. That means it’s ready to buy, take over, and run. Processes are documented. Job descriptions not only exist, but they’re up to date. Accounting is clean and tightened up. Marketing pipelines are reasonably consistent. Sales conversion is predictable. Supply lines and vendor relationships are solid.

Make sure there are as few “bodies” as possible. When I say “bodies”, I mean “bad things I’m going to find if I dig enough”. You might have heard this phrased as “I’ve been here long enough to know where all the bodies are buried.” It’s a perhaps roughly toned way of saying that you know the good & the bad of a business. The strengths, sure. But also the weaknesses that few know, much less talk about.

The fewer bodies that exist at “Hey, we’re for sale” time, the better. Most prospects won’t see them. The truly interested? They’re exactly the ones who will dig deep enough to find them – the last ones you want to give a reason to walk away.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Moving the needle

I recently received an email from someone who creates marketing materials. They’re trying to expand their business and having some trouble. They’ve been approaching the top 100 companies in a particular niche after reviewing their website. The approach involves sending them an email specific to a perceived marketing-related need based on their website review. Unfortunately, the effort isn’t getting much traction. That’s why they approached me – to get some help guiding their efforts. They shared an example of the work they might create for someone. Bottom line: They’re trying to move their own needle by moving someone else’s. I have a few suggestions. Maybe they’ll help you too.

Who has the problem you can solve?

The top 100 companies in any broad national market are going to need a very compelling reason to give you any attention for any reason.

A company of this stature has a marketing team, a plan (hopefully), goals / desires, a budget (probably), and they think they know where they are going marketing-wise. Is there an experienced marketing VP or similar at the helm? Probably. Does their marketing team have a (presumably) well-thought out, strategic plan for “hitting their numbers”. I’m referring not just to achieving the lead and closed sale numbers they want.

Companies at this level worry (sometimes legitimately) about mind share, buzz, PR and other metrics that don’t necessarily reflect the quality of their ability to find a lead and convert them to a customer. They’re a top 100 nationwide company.

Is is possible their marketing team is working with a national media / advertising / marketing firm? Do you have experience working with teams like theirs? Do you have a track record of working with companies of their size and stature? You’re going to need to show them that you can play their game on their field.

This group can be difficult to win over. It’s likely that you’ve approached them about something that, while legitimate, may not be on their radar. This group is typically worrying about much bigger things than a tactical omission on their website, for example.

Suggestion: Rather than going after the top 100 companies nationally, identify a few of the best local companies that you’d like to work with. Perhaps they’re in the national market you’ve chosen. It’s much easier to find local companies that need marketing help. Start by focusing on a market you know best. If your skills help one “blow up” (in a good way), you’ll be in demand – and not just there. It will help you decide exactly who you want to be a hero to (and how). From there, it’ll be easier to head into national markets.

Are they mortally wounded?

What you’re missing in the top 100 market approach is identifying what they see to be a profusely bleeding neck wound. You need to identify something so bad that they’re almost embarrassed to talk about it.

What fatal mistakes are they committing? What about their process is so bad that they’re avoiding conversations about it with the owner or EVP? What are they having hand-wringing discussions about at the local watering hole after work? What marketing problems will senior management be grumbling about over dinner, at the golf course, or on the ski lift with other senior management types? Their perception is this: Problems of this nature aren’t going to be easily solved by someone who emails the marketing team about a tactical issue.

Identifying what’s perceived as a missing tactical item on their website is unlikely to generate any interest. Even if you’ve identified what you feel is a fatal mistake on their website, getting their attention will be difficult. These folks receive pitches regularly. Most of them are lazy, fill in the blank style pitches that do nothing but talk about the company doing the pitching. “We can be YOUR (whatever). We’re experts in this, we’re experienced at that” and so on. There’s no conversation about the desired client, their business, or their problem. There’s certainly nothing about the solution that would make them say “These people totally get what we’re struggling with. CALL THEM NOW!”

I realize these aren’t the problems you proposed to solve, but they’re the problems that team is focused on. The profusely bleeding neck wound demands attention.

Suggestion: Choose people whose “marketing wounds” are severe and life-threatening. Show up with exactly the cure they need.

Go deep

Once you’ve identified a prospect, a generic B2B message won’t do. While many in your desired market have similar pains that seem ideal for a fairly generic message, such messages rarely get anyone’s attention. Each of these businesses think their business is totally, completely unique. Hint: They almost never are, even if what they do or sell is unique. That doesn’t mean your message can treat them generically. The message that communicates your proposed solution has to be targeted carefully so that it doesn’t even remotely resemble the random pitches they’ve getting.

If you’re looking for more specific work, you need to dig a bit deeper. The more specific your proposed solution is to their problem, the better your chances. The better you’re able to demonstrate that you understand them, their market, and their struggle – the more likely they’ll be able to realize you’re the right one to help them. From your perspective, the work may be the same work for 10 or 100 of them. From theirs, that isn’t the case.

If you’re looking to help with their website – dig deep on their site. Sign up for whatever freebies and newsletters they have. Are they delivered as promised? Do they provide the information they promised? Do they communicate the message effectively? Do they compel action? Is the information in a format that’s ideal for the desired audience? Does it include options for people who consume visuals or audio better than text? Are those differences important for this audience? What’s missing? Is there a “bleeding wound”? Is there a “What’s next?” Is there a call to action? Is there a head-scratching disconnect? Do the various parts of their site, their emails and other opportunities to engage seem to fit together? If not, what would tie them together and make them work together to get the prospect what they need, make it easy for prospects to determine that whatever they sell is right (or isn’t) for them?

Ultimately, you have to look to them like the only person who really understands them and their problem. If you work hard enough to make them feel that way, you probably are.

Photo by Doruk Yemenici on Unsplash

The role of a salesperson

I recently took a short business trip to Southern California. I conveniently missed out on the single digit and sub-zero temperatures and harsh winds that chilly Montana week. As if winter was following me, my hosts found ice on their lawn furniture one morning during my visit. While there, my host served a really nice Cabernet Sauvignon. When I got home, I called my local wine specialist to see if they could get it – it was that good. When the salesperson answered, I asked if they carried the particular winery and vintage of the Cab. They replied, “We don’t have that one, but we have plenty of other cabs.” I then said, “I understand, but right now, I’m looking for this specific one…” – and before I could finish my sentence to ask if they could custom order it – they hung up.

Opportunity missed

While I appreciated the “we have plenty of other cabs” portion of the salesperson’s response, it’s a weak effort to fulfill the role of a salesperson: Help customers meet their goals / needs and if your goods / services fit those needs – sell them. If your products / services don’t fit their needs, think long term: Send them in the right direction so they still get some value from your employer. You might think that when Macy’s Santa in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” sends customers to another store it’s simply sappy old movie scripting. Perhaps it is, yet it’s also exactly what’s customers want and appreciate.

Customers value when your experts share their expertise to help them solve a problem. It’s exactly why Ace Hardware has (and promotes) the presence of “helpful hardware” people in their stores. When we enter a wine store, we expect the employees to know more about their wine (if not most wine) than we do. If you’re a local restaurant’s sommelier that won’t be true, but most of us aren’t.

Why do we enter a particular type of business? We’re fond of the product / service. We’ve gained more expertise than most over time & enjoy sharing it. People come to experts because they don’t have the time and perhaps funds) to become one – or they need expert advice soon. We have a problem to solve or a need to fulfill. Most of us are happy to exchange payment for that expertise or purchase advice. That’s why I called the wine store.

The problem with the wine store call was the answer I didn’t receive, not the answer I received. I wasn’t asked if they could try to order it for me. They didn’t offer to check with their distributor and get back with me. They didn’t even finish the obvious part of “we have plenty of other cabs” with “such as this, this and this.” I called them because the store doesn’t have stock on their website (with or without pricing). Sidebar: At first, I thought it might be illegal to list wines on your website in MT, given our love/hate relationship with our sometimes inane alcoholic beverage laws. Nope. I eventually managed to find a Montana wine store who listed specific in-stock wines on their website.

Wanted: A well-trained salesperson.

These days, the difference between a great salesperson and a good one doesn’t really matter in most situations – including this one. It’s tough to hire great salespeople because they can work anywhere. In some environments, they’ll make more than the CEO / owner. At a retail store, a passable salesperson is one who knows the product. A good one knows the products (maybe loves the products too) and makes an effort to help the customer solve the problem that brought them to your store. This doesn’t happen simply by having people fill out a W-4.

It takes training. Not one day. Not a sheet of paper with a checklist, though that can serve as a cheat sheet in the early going. Hire people who like the game you’re playing, and like the people you’re playing it with. Make them more valuable to you by training them to be better salespeople of what you sell. They should know the goods and services better than most customers. They should know why people should choose this over that. Sure, they might move on someday. In the meantime, an untrained or under-trained salesperson reflects on you and your store, not on them. You know what breeds loyalty in your customers? Knowing that there will always be a considerate well-trained expert in your store.

Can you help your customers too much?

Can you help your customers too much? Have you ever wondered where to draw the line when providing support / customer service to your customers? Or how to react when support starts becoming the focus of every waking moment, much less the thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night? Consider the question below. Once again, the context is software, but these business model structural design failures can just as easily face your plumbing firm, Crossfit gym, or mortgage brokerage.

I have a question about supporting my end users of my software. How do you take care of users who call about their printer not working, or they can’t get the software to open up because of a networking error? Do you charge for these things? Do you somehow let them know it’s not your problem but do it nicely? I feel like we are getting way too many calls that have nothing to do with our software. Just today a customer wants to print to a different printer and I asked if it was installed on her computer. She answers “I don’t know how to check that.”

You might be wondering how you’d get into a situation like this. Maybe you don’t clearly define what your business does and what it doesn’t do. Perhaps it happened because we’ll often do “whatever the customer asks” during the early days when you’re clawing for business. In that mode, you’ll do (almost) anything to please a customer & get/keep a sale. Trouble is, you may eventually find yourself trapped because this kind of business model doesn’t scale well. Even if you’re being paid for the help, it can create a large support infrastructure. Is that the business you designed?

Once you’re in this situation, the far more important question is “How do I get out of this mess?

Help! We already do too much.

There is some good news. If you’re being asked to help, it usually means they trust the advice you’re giving them. The challenge with this is that you’re often doing this for free, which is another reason they’re asking you for help. While you could start charging then by the hour for help that is not directly related to what you do, is that the business you’re in? Looking forward, is that the business you want to be in?

Let’s rewind a bit. When you selected a market to enter, did you also consider the type of customers involved? Did you consider what sort of help they would expect? Consumer users need a lot of help. Most of them aren’t tech people. They depend on tech to remove problems, not create them. When the latter happens, it usually coincides with use of other technology, like yours. It’s the nature of the beast.

Your consumer users need your products / services to help them, heal themselves and when that fails, communicate all pertinent details to you as automatically as possible. Anything else creates a situation where you’re buried in a pile of conversations with frustrated users who don’t know how to answer your legitimately nerdy questions that your software should’ve already figured out.

Understandable. It’s not difficult to get buried by consumer or small business support / service. The consumer issues are noted above, and the small business ones aren’t much different. Few small businesses have an IT staff. Some have their brother-in-law the IT guy (translation: maybe a gamer, maybe a real IT person somewhere), and a scarce few actually have a professional firm contracting this sort of help. Even for the latter and most proactive group, this help can be quite expensive. Result: They’ll still try to get you to help before falling back on the external IT group.

So how do you fix it without aggravating your entire user community?

Most likely, you don’t. There is no shortcut here. Admit that you can’t do it any longer and decide what you will do, then communicate the situation to your users. At the very least, you have to communicate it to the ones who are consuming the most time on things that are ultimately not “owned by you”.

What you can’t do: Continue being your customers’ service desk for HP, Microsoft, Dell, etc. There’s too much hardware changing too fast that’s affected by too many things. Remember, this isn’t the business you’re in (unless it is).

No easy answers

This support / service load has a cost – sometimes a substantial one. You have a few choices, including these:

  • Shoulder all of it and raise prices across your entire customer base.
  • Shoulder none of it and take the heat. Probably a lot of it.
  • Choose a solution somewhere in the middle and stand firm on the things you simply can’t afford to do without being paid, if you do them at all.

If your software demands hardware (such as point of sale devices), then choose a very short list to support from specific vendors, certify it with your product – and support it very well with your hardware partners’ help. Make it clear prior to purchase that you cannot support other hardware, unless you’re willing to accept the cost of doing so (You probably can’t).

No matter what you decide, you MUST communicate your decision and new support policies / approach to your users. This is not the time to “get all corporate” in your communication. Be clear and real about it. Small businesses may not like it, but they’ll understand that you have to contain it. Enterprises will likely begrudgingly accept it – knowing that they’ve been getting a screaming deal for some time. Consumers won’t like it, but you simply can’t replace vendor support for every piece of hardware &software ever made – much less whatever you sell. It’s not feasible. It’s time to stand up for yourself – and the future of your business.

Overwhelmed by the enterprise?

Enterprise customers usually don’t need help with printers and other rudimentary things. The exceptions are those with an IT team that’s difficult to deal with. They’ll call you first because you actually help them. You have to be crystal clear (in advance, on paper) about the details of support / service with enterprise clients or the sheer volume of questions can bury your support team. Badly structured pricing of support can create severe pain and impact your ability to support the rest of your customers.

This is the situation “shadow IT” ultimately grew out of. It happens when a department gets fed up with IT & rolls their own solutions. They go to this trouble because they’re fed up with the inability to get help. You might end up being a part of a department’s shadow IT solution. Is your sales process designed to detect how purchasing and support are delivered to internal customers at your prospective customer? If you’re part of a shadow IT solution, your price better reflect the real needs of that department.

As with consumer solutions, a self-healing, self-diagnosing solution will save a ton of time, money, and frustration for everyone. These self-healing, self-diagnosing solutions don’t have to be perfect. If they can handle the most frequently reported issues, it will give your team breathing room to make headway on the rest. “Oh, that’s common sense” you might say. Yes, it is. Does your product do it?

Avoid doing too much for too little

Think hard about the future of what you’re building. How will your team, product, service, delivery, operations, & accounting look when you have 100 or 1000 or even 10000 clients? When you’re scraping for revenue, it may seem silly to consider how your business model will look at 1000 clients. Do it anyway, as it’s much easier to design a model that works at any size while your office is the kitchen table. The investment in time and thought will pay big dividends 9999 customers from now, if not before. You can get by on seat of the pants management when you’re small, but that sort of business model will create pain well before you’re ready to redesign it.

Operations will look different at 10 clients than at 1000, but the business model doesn’t have to. You can do it, but it’s hard to change your business model while 1000 customers are on board. Invest even a little bit of thought up front to make sure things make sense five years from now.

You may not remember 10, 15, 20 years ago when software companies provided perpetual licenses and never charged for support. The boldest proudly offered “lifetime support”. What most customers didn’t consider was that it was the vendor’s lifetime, rather than theirs. Vendors suffers the same shortsightedness. Their business model flipped over when their ninth year sales pace didn’t match that of their second year. Suddenly, they had updates and support to provide to more people every year while revenue slowly dropped off. Their market penetration rose, but their annual revenue didn’t.

Decide what your business model will support and price accordingly. Communicate clearly what you do, what you don’t do, and how you charge.

Team players make the team better

We joke, perhaps uncomfortably, that some people “don’t play well with others“. Others are considered average at being team players. Finally, there are the folks who seem to mesh with any group. The best of them thrive at team dynamics and seem to improve the team, rather than simply becoming a part of the team.

While this is obvious, we often hurry to hire someone. Every time you get in a big hurry to “get that hire done”, there’s a pretty good chance that you & your team will pay for your impatience. If you’re in a hurry for a critical position, look internally for a solid team player who can grow into the open role. Showing that people with these skills get good opportunities sends a message to both the person getting the role and their peers. The upside is that you get an existing team member with known skills into a (presumably) more important position. The role they leave open is presumably a less important role, or perhaps a role that’s easier to fill.

What do team players look like?

It’s easy to say “hire team players”. Getting consistently good at finding them from a pool of candidates is another story. The real work is in identifying them during your interview process. During your interviews, everyone has their persona “all shined up”. Be sure to dig deeper and find signals that indicate what they’re really like when the shine wears off. What does a team player look like? How do you get them to reveal their true selves and reveal what they aren’t?

Much is revealed through conversation. So what do you do? Start by asking people about teams they’ve been on. What do they think makes a good team member? Why? Why are those things good indicators? How does the team benefit from those characteristics? Why do you think that’s important? Channel your inner four year old: “Why? Why? Why?

Knowing what a candidate values in a team member is good, but it’s critical to know why they value them. Their answers reveal their maturity as a team member & team leader.

Do you know your team’s “human whisperers”. If you don’t – ask around. Your team knows who can read people well. They might not be the senior managers who normally interview people. Involve them anyway. They’re the ones who can read what others cannot. They’ll often pull stories out of a candidate that they’d never typically share – both good & bad. They might be less assertive than your “typical” interviewer, but don’t cut them out of the process. You need to know how a candidate communicates with people who aren’t hard charging extroverted managers. These “shy” or “quiet” folks are often very good at assessing what’s behind someone’s “interview face”. Let them meet the candidate off-site for lunch or coffee at a place that has table service so you can see how they treat wait staff.

What about those who aren’t team players?

Regarding the folks who “don’t play well with others”, you have two choices. Give them a chance to change, with milestones and a timeline, or help them find their next career home. Some people are convinced that they can’t work for someone else and that the only way for them to be happy & thrive is to work alone. Only a hermit lives & works alone. Even the most fiercely independent loner will eventually discover that, along with customers and vendors, they must work together as a team – even if they otherwise work alone.

The person who refuses to learn how to become a team player simply has to go. You aren’t doing someone a favor by keeping them around when they are unhappy and/or don’t fit well with your team. These changes feel difficult, if not horrible, but not as bad as things will be if you do nothing. Making these changes through training and/or departures is what your team needs and deserves. It’s also better for the person who isn’t a team player and doesn’t show interest in becoming one. They deserve a chance to get it together, or find a place where they do fit. Some take to training / mentoring and transform themselves. Some don’t. Sometimes a change helps them figure out the sort of team they need, or that they need to make some changes to become the sort of person a team benefits from.

Selling your company

In Silicon Valley, “exiting” means a company you started / invested in went public or was bought by another company. It’s a time of celebration, reward, & anticipation of the next big project. When you are selling your company, it’s often different. For some, it’s an escape. For others, it’s the achievement of a long-anticipated goal. Are you prepared for it?

Is your company ready to sell?

The process of getting a company ready to sell is really about getting it running smoothly. It’s easy to think of it from the “E-Myth” perspective & focus on “systematizing” your business, but there’s more to it. Put yourself in the shoes of a buyer during due diligence.

They’re looking for proof. Signals that provide assurance.

They want to see data that indicates how your company performs. If you have good, verifiable data, you don’t need to make big claims. Let the data talk. For example: You can probably predict gross revenue over the next 90 days with a fair amount of accuracy simply by gut feel, but can you show data that supports your prediction? How you do this will vary, but many use some form of leads-per-month and conversion rate.

Sidebar: One conversion rate calculation is the number of leads who buy during a period divided by the number of leads you gained during that same period. If you get 1000 leads a month & sell to 520 of them that month, your conversion rate for that month is 52%. Sales cycle length & other factors can complicate rate calculations. Keep it simple.

Selling your company requires leading indicators

Measurable business performance can be difficult to extract solely from financials, which produces trailing indicators. Income history over time is good to have, but it’s a trailing indicator. A trailing indicator is one that documents how the company did last week, last month, last quarter, last year, etc. What about the future?

Buyers want to see leading indicators. Data that accurately predicts future performance.

A leading indicator uses verifiable data to reasonably predict how the company will perform next week, next quarter, etc. Restaurant reservations are a leading indicator: You can predict on average that 78 people will show up for dinner if you have 100 dinner reservations for next week.

Lead counts (inbound phone calls, website opt-ins, etc) function both as a trailing & leading indicator. Imagine you got 100 new leads a day on average over the last two years. Let’s say your close rate on sales hasn’t changed during that period. If your average sales cycle is 60 days long, you should be able to predict income quite accurately for the next 60 days. Why? Because the lead count is steady and so is your close (conversion) rate. While this ignores changes in prices & costs, it reasonably predicts future gross income.

Why are you selling your company?

When someone approaches you about selling your company, it’s often done without provocation. You haven’t listed the business for sale. You haven’t indicated that you’re ready to retire. “I’m not ready“, you might think.

They see opportunity. Sometimes they see synergy with their existing business. Maybe they want to buy more customers. Their reasons are theirs. What are yours?

When you ask owners in this situation what they really want, they’re often unsure. There’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t always know what the next step beyond business owner is because you haven’t thought hard about it. You’ve been focused on running the company, growing it, & taking care of customers. It’s OK if you haven’t put serious thought into what a sale really means – even if you always knew you’d sell someday.

A big check” is too simplistic an answer for some, because the business is a big piece of who they are. Some want a role in the company after the sale. Many don’t. Some care what happens to the company, the customers & their team. Some don’t.

Owners often have a number in mind that they would take. The first number I hear is rarely based on hard numbers, desired ROI / payback period, etc. Remember that a buyer is purchasing assets (most likely) as well as an income, whether they’re an individual or a company.

When it comes to selling your company, your “why” is as important as theirs. Think about it and get your business ready.

Delegation isn’t easy.

Several times over the last month or so, I’ve suggested refocusing on important work. I’ve suggested paying attention to long-procrastinated tasks. There’s high value in moving on to bigger things and relieving your mind of the self-persecution of procrastination. All of this tends to demand that you do four things: Prioritize. Delegate. Outsource. Focus. We’ve focused on prioritize and focus in recent weeks. Today, let’s talk about delegation.

“I can do it faster than I can delegate it”

The pervasive thought, *particularly for a founder/owner*, is that you can complete a task faster than you can describe it well enough for someone else to do it. That might be true the first time. It’s probably true the first few times. After that, you’ll know one of three things: Your instructions are ready, or they aren’t. You chose the right person. You chose the wrong person. Those are easy to fix.

Delegated tasks are usually needed more than once. They tend to happen repeatedly. The first few times, you’ll want to check their work. Who wouldn’t? They’ll want you to do so as well. You’ll probably need to refine the checklist / instructions you created. Soon, they (the person you delegated to) will be refining it. After the first few times, you’ll want to take a quick glance to make sure things are done right. But the 11th, 20th and 42nd time? You’re out of the loop. Intentionally.

That first few times, you aren’t going to gain any time through delegation. Just as you expected. Even if things go very well, you have to circle back. After those first few times, you’ll gain time every time this work needs to be done. Not only are you no longer having to prioritize and find the time to do the work, in many cases you won’t even have to think about it. Unless your company is very small and has no other managers, let someone else follow up and monitor quality / completion time, etc.

If you don’t have anyone else to do that oversight, give the person you delegated to a process to confirm the work’s completion to you without interrupting you. While you can use whatever job / process / project management system you use for this, don’t over complicate it. This can be as simple as an inbox, an email or a text. Prefer old school? Put an old Amazon box on a table outside your office so they can drop things into it without interrupting you. Hang a clipboard on a nail and let them check off the things you’ve delegated to them.

The keys to delegation

The stickiest thing about the delegation process is how you document the work. Yes, the very thing you don’t want to take time to do. That’s the thing you must do well. Several things are obviously critical. The complexity of the task could require covering things you normally take for granted. Things “built in” to you. This may make it even more tempting to avoid delegating the task, but don’t give in. If it can be delegated, do it.

There are several questions to consider. What raw materials and tools are required? Where are they? Are instructions required? Other team members? Are interim approvals or reviews necessary? When should the work be started? When must the work be done? What milestones exist between the start of work and completion? Do we need lead time before delivery for oversight, review, rework? If so, how much? Does the job require outside resources? (contractors, services, materials not already in-house)

Completion and delivery: What specifically indicates that the work is complete? What specifically defines completed delivery? Paperwork in a specific folder? Files in a specific Dropbox folder? A pallet in a certain rack? A delivery to a customer? Is a customer sign off required?

These things are always on an owner’s mind, but might not be on the delegated person’s mind until you share them. Even though the person doing the work isn’t an owner, they’re still important. They include: Why is this work being done? How does it tie into the big picture? What are the stakes of failure? Is a customer depending on this work? Is this work critical to keeping a customer?

The first few times, this process won’t be enjoyable. As you refine your delegation process – you’ll end up with a form, or an email template, or something to make it easier. Give it time to work – because you need it to work.

Finish important work this year

With the start of the new year, many will be looking for ways to reboot lives, businesses, and whatever else they’re disappointed about the state or progress of. We’ve all been there. The cure for many of these disappointments is to finish procrastinated, meaningful work as we discussed a few weeks ago. With the new year starting, it’s tempting to put that unfinished work aside and try to start something fresh and exciting to ring in the new year. You might even create (yet another) ginormous list of items to knock off because everything magically changed on January 1st. Or did it?

Important work makes big changes

Everything will not magically change the week of January 1st. It didn’t last year, remember? The only way to make “magical” change happen is to do more important work. Making things happen changes you and your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you have to work 14, 17 or 19 hour days. It’s not complicated. Focus, execute, repeat. Consider this: If, during each month this year, you could identify and complete the most important work on your to do list, would that make this year better than last?

Of all the unfinished things on your to do list, identify the ones that absolutely must be finished. Some of them are busy work. Do you really need to finish them? Can they be cancelled or delegated? Either way, take them off your unfinished list if they aren’t important enough for you to spend time on them instead of doing ANYTHING else you should be doing. Unfinished doesn’t mean important. Important means whatever it means to you and your business. Your time is likely the most valuable time in the business – why waste it on tasks that can be done by someone else? That doesn’t mean that work isn’t valuable. It simply means you don’t have to be the one to do it.

Complete more of the important work no one else can do if you want to make big changes.

Eliminate the unimportant

With all that busy, cancelled, delegated work removed from your unfinished to do list, what’s left? Which of these started, but unfinished important work items is the most important thing that you can finish in January? This shouldn’t be hard. If it is, then you may need to decide if your to do list contains anything important. I mean, come on – it’s early January. I’ve only asked once, so this should be the easiest choice of them all.

Repeat the process. When you’re out of meaningful, unfinished tasks, start the most important new task on your list. Don’t start five or 12. Start one. Now finish it. Maybe this takes you all month, but if this is the most important thing on your plate – it’ll be worth it.

On the other hand, if out of all the not-yet-started and not-yet-finished things you need to do, you can’t identify an important piece of work, two things come to mind. One, all that unfinished work can be delegated. Two, why isn’t there important, business-critical work that no one else can do on your to do list? Are you extricating yourself from the business? If so, great. If not, have you let yourself stop taking on important, business-changing projects because you weren’t getting them done? This process should have freed up a lot of time for that work – including the time needed to conceive it.

What about new tasks?

What about all the new tasks that come up this month? Don’t let them distract you. If something comes up that is super important – more so than your in-progress most important task, then you’ll have to decide whether you’ll hit pause and get that super important item done. Typically these are urgent tasks, not important ones. Know the difference.

For anything else, add them to your list, but only if they are important. Give the rest to someone else, or put them off. If they aren’t important, it’s unlikely that status will change. Put them on a list called “To delegate” and do it during your weekly planning.

Why are we doing this? Because getting more of the important (to you) things done is the most impactful change you can make have a better year than last. Consistently getting important work done builds your confidence and capability. As those two grow, so will you and your work.

A similar view: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/smarter-not-harder-how-to-succeed-at-work