What halftime advice would you give your staff?

If you look back at recent comeback victories in sports, you have to wonder about the halftime advice those teams received. In Super Bowl 51, the Patriots were down 21-3, yet came back to win. The second half performance of both teams looked nothing like their performance in the first half. What did it take in the locker room to get the Patriots to turn that around? What was said in the Falcons locker room? After weeks of preparation, what can be said and done in 20 minutes that can radically turn around the performance of a team of professionals to such a degree that they overwhelm another team of professionals?

Halftime isn’t just about comebacks. It’s a chance to review and adjust, which we all should be doing after a positive or negative outcome to most business activities. For a football team ahead by a lot (as the Falcons were), what has to be said to prevent that sort of letdown? Teams come into halftimes needing to be reminded that they deserve to be there, that they can come back, that they are capable of doing what got them there, and that each individual is a piece of something bigger.

It’s no different in your business. The concept of a game’s halftime doesn’t necessarily align well with the events on the timeline of a company’s life, but that doesn’t matter. There are always turning points in projects, products, careers, marketing campaigns, etc. Projects and products both have natural “halftimes”. They look like points in time where it makes sense to stop, assess, adjust and re-engage.

Team and company are interchangeable concepts. Whether teams win or lose, the best ones get together afterward to review what happened, both positive and negative, and what can be learned. Military units review after action reports (AAR) for the same reason. They ask the question: “How can we improve upon what just happened?” regardless of whether it was good or bad.

Looking back to Lombardi

Every Vince Lombardi speech covers fundamentals. He knew he was dealing with professionals. Their performance occurs at a level most never reach. They see and understand parts of the game that amateurs and “mere TV viewers” cannot. For the very best, the game “slows down” as if everyone else moves in slow motion so they are able to arrive at a critical location on the field with perfect timing. Lombardi knew this, yet repeatedly returned to fundamentals.

Is there a lesson in that for your team? Do your best staffers remember and execute fundamental behaviors more frequently than everyone else?

What halftime advice do you give a team who had a great month?

Your team had a great month. Now what?

What changed month-over-month that made last month so great? What performances stood out as the keys to making that happen? What short list of behaviors or tactics can be identified that were essential to the month’s outcome? What should be focused on so that your team can reproduce that performance? Who learned something that they leveraged into a successful outcome? Who stopped doing something and noticed an improvement as a result? What systemic changes can we implement to make this month’s success more easily reproducible?

What halftime advice do you give a team who had a bad month?

Your team had a terrible month. Now what?

What historically key success behaviors are still valid and were not achieved last month? What happened that threw us off our game? How do we correct those things? What systemic changes can be made to automatically prevent those problems from reoccurring? Who needs help meeting performance expectations? Who needs a mentor? Who needs coaching? What fundamental behaviors fell off last month and need to be improved? How can we remind each team member of fundamentals that we assume will be performed? What distracted us this month? Has everyone’s performance fallen off, or only certain groups?

Call a timeout

Halftime provides a natural break in the action to reflect, assess, adjust and re-engage. For a company, use them like a timeout. When things aren’t heading in the right direction, don’t wait. Call a timeout. Step in, discuss what’s going wrong (and well), share what you’ve learned, advise and re-engage. Are the staffers who are failing following the plan? Are the staffers who are succeeding following the plan? Is the plan failing?

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usaghumphreys/

Would your employees recommend your company?

While listening to recruiter Bob Beaudine‘s Entreleadership podcast this week, some comments he made about recruiting and networking suddenly mixed themselves together. When your company is looking for new people to fill positions, do your employees recommend your company to their friends and family?

While such recruiting would be dependent on whether or not your friends and family are qualified to do the work, in many companies, that isn’t a problem. When a company needs a receptionist, mechanic, manager, or salesperson – there’s almost always someone in your circle of family and friends who could be interested in that opportunity.

Question is, do your employees recommend your company? I suspect you’d be interested in hearing what they might say to a friend or family member about their work and their employer. Chances of you hearing that verbatim are probably not good, yet it’s something worth pursuing.

Make it easier to recommend your company

Put together a brochure, something on letterhead or a web page that elaborates on why you encourage employees to recruit friends and family. Your reasons for encouraging this may resonate with your team. For example, you wouldn’t expect an employee to recommend someone who won’t reflect well on them. If they will be working together (something to be careful about), you wouldn’t expect an employee to recommend someone they’ll have to carry or that they can’t depend on.

Rather than leaving that unsaid, discuss it in your recruiting communications and in staff meetings. Make it clear that you understand that employees aren’t going to recommend someone they don’t trust and believe in. Be sure your employees understand that their recommendation is a function of their reputation in the company. Not only will this likely make the employees more selective about who they recommend, it will also reinforce your belief in them and in who they recruit.

What if they aren’t recommending your company

If your employees aren’t actively reaching out to friends and family to suggest they apply for openings, there may be good reasons. Some folks don’t like to combine their work and personal lives. That may seem a little odd to company owners, but it is your employees’ choice. However, if you see or know of your employees socializing outside of work, then it’s unlikely that combining work and personal lives is a concern. For those employees who mix socially, do you get recommendations for job candidates from their friends and family? Presumably this would come out in interviews or recommendations, so you would know most of the time.

Find a way to ask your employees why they aren’t recommending that their friends and family apply for work at your place. You may need to make this confidential – there are easy to use online survey tools that can help.

Of course, there are legitimate reasons why an employee wouldn’t recruit friends and family. I would be wary of suggesting that both people in a couple work for the same company, particularly if the company isn’t on very solid financial ground. The last thing a couple needs is for both of them to be worried about losing their job, or worse, having it happen to both of them at the same time.

Whether or not your staff recommends the company to friends and family, it’s worth discussing with them. Focus on the employees who will be frank with you. You need someone to tell you want you need to hear, even if you don’t want to hear it. Be sure they know that you won’t hassle or punish them for their comments – but you may ask for their help. You want honest feedback. If your staff wouldn’t recommend your company, you need to know why.

They need to understand that the lack of recommendations is serious, and that you want them to share with impunity. That doesn’t grant a free pass to be mean-spirited, rude, or abusive – and you should advise them of that in advance. Communicating bad news properly is an important life skill. Done poorly, this discussion will be tough for an owner to forgive and forget. What you don’t want is information presented in a way that will derail the goal: the need to learn what’s holding back their recommendation to others. Remember, the reasons they don’t recommend you are probably the reasons people leave.

Your backups are worthless

Last week, we discussed that business owners do a good job of protecting their business assets – except for work-in-process and data. While I could one-off any number of work-in-process situations, doing that in a vacuum isn’t particularly effective. I can, however, cover some common steps for making backups of your data that anyone can work from.

Backups don’t matter if…

Backups don’t matter if you can’t restore from them. That’s what makes them worthless. I once encountered a financial services client whose backup tape had not been written to for over five months. Meaning: They couldn’t have recovered any of the contracts, loan documents and other paperwork that had been processed for at least five months. Even worse, the tape was bad, so even the five month old backups were unusable. Their financial / account data was housed off-site, so it was not at risk. Even so, having no backups of those files could have put them at serious risk if a hardware failure occurred.

The take home: It’s important to check your backups to make sure they succeeded and to attempt a practice recovery on those files on a regular basis. If you can’t restore a backup, the time taken to make the backup is wasted and your business data is unprotected.

Don’t forget your website

While the next portion of this pertains specifically to WordPress, the steps and justification for the steps I’m about to recommend also apply to other web-based content systems – such as Drupal, Wix, Joomla, etc. These systems are popular because they allow you to build and maintain a nice site without an expensive custom programming job. According to research done by non-WordPress researchers, WordPress is used on 27% of web sites.

In February 2017, a WordPress bug related to their new REST API was fixed and rolled out. While WordPress fixed the bug quickly, they waited only a week after the bug fix was available before publicly revealing the details of the most severe part of the bug. Legit or otherwise, any delay in updating WordPress on sites that use it made a WordPress site subject to this hack. Within hours of revealing the previously mentioned details, the volume of hack attempts using this bug escalated into the millions of attempts over a few days. In a few days from Feb 6th through Feb 10th, over a million WordPress sites had been defaced. Fortunately, the defacing was easy to reverse.

While the flaw was on WordPress, it’s a painful reminder to keep your WordPress-based site updated. You can tell WordPress to auto-update itself, as well as themes and plugins. Despite the availability of auto-update functionality, only 37% of the many millions of WordPress sites are up to date, according to data published by WordPress.org.

In addition, replace or remove plugins that aren’t updated and tested regularly. Many once-popular plugins are no longer maintained. They may continue to work, but any security vulnerabilities in the plugin(s) won’t get fixed. Any security problems will be there until you stop using the plugin. Bottom line – Not worth the risk.

Finally, protect yourself against the cretins who do this kind of stuff. I recommend a combination of the free Sucuri security plugin and the paid WordFence plugin. The latter tool provides a flexible set of tools to block people from your site – including the ability to block users by country. If your business has no need to interact with folks from countries known to harbor hackers, then you can prevent most access by people in that country. “Most” because IP-based geolocation technology is dependable, but not 100% perfect.

Automated and off-site

As with most things of this nature, I suggest automation. There are a number of tools you can use to automate backups for your website, whether or not the site uses a content management system like WordPress. There’s no reason to make this yet another manual task you have to do each day. As I noted above, backups are worthless if you can’t restore from them. Be sure to test your ability to restore from the backups you’re taking.

Last but not least, take a copy of the data off-location or use an online service. If your building burns, the backup media was sitting on the computer won’t help you recover. Dealing with fire or theft is tough. Losing your business data only makes it worse.

Protecting traditional assets isn’t enough

Protecting traditional assets is one of the most important duties of a business owner. You’re constantly taking steps to deal with the need to protect and maintain your assets including buildings, cash flow, receivables, furniture/fixtures/equipment (FFE), etc. You have insurance, attorneys, maintenance contracts and any number of other processes, mechanisms and protections in place to sustain the value of the things you’ve invested in, and in some cases, to keep you out of trouble.

Yet despite all that effort and all that expense, I encounter at least one sizable business leaving themselves at significant risk… every single week. However, I don’t mean about FFE and other hard assets. There are at least two other assets worth protecting – and they’re as important as the ones you spend plenty of time, effort and money protecting. While you might be able to think of other assets that need protection, I’m speaking of work-in-process and data.

How do you protect work-in-process?

Every small business knows the pain of trying to get work out the door when they’re sick or an employee has to call in sick – or quits. The smallest of businesses, such as those with no staff, have to suck it up and deal with it. Sometimes this means having to tell their client(s) that they can’t deliver on the previously predicted schedule. Even when they deliver a little bit late, it plants a seed with that client that their vendor might unintentionally put them at risk by being unable to deliver at some random time in the future. If Murphy has his way, the timing won’t be ideal.

While many businesses do cross-training, the most resource-constrained ones struggle to make the time to do so. The resource-constrained small business isn’t the exception, it’s often the rule. While you might have plans in place when losing a “key employee”, that isn’t necessarily what causes the pain. It isn’t necessarily about losing your best welder, hairstylist, millwright, programmer, salesperson or finish carpenter. What gets hurt is what they’re doing when they depart, whether the departure is permanent or temporary. Do you have people sitting around who can simply step in and take over without missing a beat?

In most cases, that isn’t reasonable.

A salesperson who has been working a deal for months is tough to replace. They’ve established rapport with the decision makers. Starting over is likely to delay closing that deal. A hairstylist has the same kind of rapport and trust established with their 20 best clients. Your best welder may not be able to take over a job that someone was doing because they are backed up, or they aren’t used to working under water, or they can’t leave town to work due to their family situation. Your best programmer is unlikely to step in and immediately do their best work on code they’ve never seen on a subject matter they might know nothing about.

There isn’t a magic wand to these kinds of problems, only hard, important work. There’s documentation, cross-training and meetings (yay!). It probably seems normal to ask your best players what they’d recommend in these situations, but don’t forget to ask everyone else so nothing is missed. Who do they think can take over? Who needs to be cross-trained? What processes need to be excruciatingly documented? Talk about it and plan for it as best you can before the uncontrollable happens.

It’s time to treat data as one of your traditional assets

I see data at risk on a regular basis. The maintenance and protection of data and computing equipment is often left to the end user – who is all but certain to have no experience in such things, or will not have the tools (or time) to do the job. I regularly hear from businesses who were held hostage by ransomware, by systems with no anti-virus, or by hardware failure. Years back, I had a bank client that hadn’t backed up in over five months. How did I know? The ONE backup tape they had was dated five months earlier. It was damaged.

Can orders be filled without order data?

People ask me how often they should backup. I usually respond with “How much work can you afford to re-do?” It isn’t a flippant question. Can you afford to pay your staff to redo everything they did last week? Yesterday? The last two hours? What delay can you afford?

Photo credit Rita Willaert

Sidewalks, groundhogs and accounting

A couple weeks ago, Puxatawney Phil saw his shadow. As the legend goes, this indicated that we’d have six more weeks of winter. Given the kind of winter we’ve had so far, I expect more shoveling before April and May get here. Yet we’re not here to discuss the weather, at least not specifically. As I’ve roamed Montana this winter, I’ve noticed a pattern that struck me and made me a bit curious. Is the condition of the sidewalk and parking lot in front of a business an indicator of how things are being run inside the building?

Have you have heard the theory that the condition of someone’s car is a reflection of their home and/or their life? You may have heard the same about someone with a messy desk. Whether it’s true or not, it’s an interesting parallel to the pattern that I referred to earlier. The pattern is that businesses that I know to be well-run, well-executed “tight ships” always seem to have parking lots that are cleaned up quickly after it snows – and the sidewalks in front of them in almost every case is routinely spotless, salted and kept free of ice.

I don’t have internal knowledge of all the businesses in this pattern – ie: the ones who fit and the ones who don’t, but it’s quite accurate among the ones that I have internal operations knowledge of.

Broken windows

Years ago, there was a book about crime called Broken Windows, which was based on an often argued theory that doing things like immediately fixing broken windows and removing graffiti soon as it appears sends a message to the community that the area is cared for and monitored, so the criminal element goes elsewhere. New York City applied this during its well-known (and successful) battle to reduce crime over the last couple of decades.

Crime is a complex thing when you’re looking at a large urban area. First impressions, however, are not. When you arrive at a business and notice broken windows, dirty bathrooms, dirty floors, messy work areas, a sketchy parking lot, etc – it’s difficult not to wonder how things are going in the back room. How well is that business run? What sort of initial and ongoing training to the employees receive? Are their books a mess? You may not care about how under control their accounting is, but if they can’t seem to do a good job of recording your payments, you’ll start caring.

All of these things can be indicators of bigger, deeper or widespread problems. You can’t necessarily assume – everyone has bad days or makes a mistake now and then. It’s tough to keep up with the snow when you get 48″ of snow in three days.

Why does it matter?

How businesses deal with these things tends to be an incredibly accurate indicator of what’s going on elsewhere in the company. Some have well-thought out plans for what happens on days when roads are all but impassible. For some, it doesn’t matter. For those who you need to go to the hospital, I’ll bet you’ll want them to have a snow “disaster plan” that makes sure the hospital is staffed regardless of the intensity of the weather.

You can see similar things when working with employees. It’s crystal clear which businesses invest in their staff and which ones leave them to learn by the seat of their pants. While experiential learning is often a good thing, training and reinforcement gives everyone the same foundation, and sets minimum standards within a company. Without those things, the customer-facing experience and work quality can differ substantially – the last thing you want.

Why is that important? Consistent experience is everything. People don’t want to worry about which version of your business they’re going to experience today. Why else would someone repeatedly visit the same franchise restaurant as they travel the country? They know they will have a consistent experience. They know how long it will take, what it will cost and what the food will be like – regardless of the class of fare that restaurant serves.

A consistent experience is critically important to customers. The expectation (and history) of a known-to-be-consistent experience is frequently the deciding factor when “all else is equal”, even when it isn’t.

Keeping that in mind – What kinds of signals does your business send?

Hire for commitment over ego

The difference between a strong business leader and a weak one is easily detected: Who do they surround themselves with – and why? Do they hire for commitment or ego? Time and time again, you can see examples in business where a business owner surrounded themselves with one of three kinds of people:

The kind of people who will agree with everything the owner says or proposes, almost (if not never) disagrees with the owner, and when cornered, will err on the side of silence or “I’m undecided” rather than taking a stand that might later prove to disagree with the boss.

  • The group who will say little or nothing when they disagree with the owner.
  • The group who will make decisions independently, regardless of the owner’s stance / position, and aren’t inclined to hide that from the owner.
  • The group who will make decisions independently, regardless of the owner’s stance / position, but aren’t willing to offend / rile the owner by stating their disagreement.
  • The group who will disagree with the owner’s choices and decisions no matter how valid – simply because they’re the owner.

There are probably a few other groups / types that I missed, but this list covers the majority of what I’ve seen in the last 35 years.

Which group should you hire from?

From where I stand, neither 100% agreement or disagreement is a good thing, unless each decision is arrived at through analysis and thought. However, as we’ve all seen, some of these disagreements exist simply because they can (a minority, in my view) and others disagree because they feel the owner is making a mistake – however legitimate they feel that mistake might be. When you feel your boss the owner is about to make a mistake that could seriously affect your business, you have choices, which tend to fall into three categories:

  • You disagree, say so and make your case to your manager or the owner.
  • You disagree and say nothing.
  • You disagree and make your case to your peers.

When you hire someone, which choice would you prefer your future employee takes?

For me, it’s the first one, if you’re hiring for commitment over ego.

Making this possible is on you, the owner

So let’s say you’re on board with the whole “I welcome my staff to disagree with me as long as they’re will to discuss it” thing. It isn’t going to happen unless you create an environment that makes it clear that you appreciate it AND that disagreeing with you isn’t going to come with a cost. Saying it is rarely enough. You have to prove it. If it’s been a long time since you were an employee, you may wonder why you have to prove it, but trust me, you do. You might even have to create a situation where a reasonable (ie: calm) discussion gets started, even if you have to “stage” (pre-arrange) the start of the conversation. It might seem a little disingenuous to plan a discussion like this and arrange for someone to disagree with you, but it’s THAT important to show everyone that you’re willing to engage in such a discussion. You need to say and show that it’s ok to disagree with you. You will also need to find a way to communicate that it’s not OK to be a jerk when you disagree with the owner, but otherwise, it’s OK to do so.

Once the discussion is done, it’s also critical that you follow up both privately and publicly. After you’ve had time to reconsider your discussion given the input you received during the disagreement discussion, call the person into your office – and do so that it’s obvious you’ve called them in. Discuss with them what your decision is, whether you changed your mind or not. Explain to them what their comments made you reconsider and how they impacted any other work you’re dealing with. If they changed your mind, explain why. Either way, be sure that they know that the risk they took in front of everyone was zero risk and had a return on investment: You recognize that they have the best interests of the company at heart (commitment) when they publicly disagreed with you and that you appreciate it.

Hiring for commitment over ego means hiring someone who is willing to take a stand because they feel it’s best for the company.

Structure becomes infrastructure

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the value of checklists. Checklists provide an obvious memory support mechanism and a sequence of events for work processes, but their value extends beyond that. They’re one of many tools you can use to provide structure to work processes, a comforting “I’ve got your back” to new employees or employees new to a role. In addition, they’re a means of creating some standardization of what you do. While your team doesn’t need these things for the same reason that a young child benefits from a structured life, the benefits to your business are at least as important. Structure becomes infrastructure.

Better information

Structure can take many forms in your business. A simple example is a gain in structure when you move from a cigar box to a cash register. Likewise, when you replace the simple cash register with one that’s integrated with your customer relationship management (CRM) system. These improvements increase your ability to share information and leverage it when making decisions of all kinds. Normally a CRM is viewed as a tool for sales and marketing, yet the organization that it brings to transactional data tends to improve service and your company’s understanding of client needs. Any time you can integrate data from multiple parts of the company, you’re almost certain to make the data more valuable. Put simply, having more complete information should yield better decisions.

That transaction data now takes on a behavioral component, since you’re better equipped to recognize order / re-order patterns, capacity expectations and the like. Seems like a sales thing on the surface, and to an extent it is. When you are the business who knows exactly when to refill a client’s supply of a critical component of their business, the trust and comfort level with you improves.

Clients will recognize this and start to depend on your routine fulfillment – whatever that means for your relationship with them. Whether it’s a load of sand, a dozen bags of coffee, or a courier pickup – when they see a consistent, timely behavior develop, they’ll start to depend on as if it’s part of their own infrastructure. Eventually, they’ll build upon it. That’s not just sales – it’s service. While it may seem like a little thing to know that your coffee cup is always refilled in time, that same type of fulfillment isn’t a little thing – it’s worth time and money to your clients. You become part of their business – and perhaps a part that would be increasingly painful to replace.

Being painful and time-consuming to replace is a good goal, but don’t take advantage of it. Being ingrained in their business is sufficient advantage. Don’t make it the kind of pain of change that they’ll suffer simply to gain the pleasure of getting rid of you.

What tools and/or processes can you wrap around your existing checklists and other means of process control to make them more valuable? What two systems, tools or processes can you integrate to make each more valuable? Your people are often the best resource of this info. They’re in the trenches every day and frequently have just the insights needed to make their work more productive, more valuable and more efficient.

But you have to ask.

What structure isn’t

It isn’t control, at least in a negative form. Structure changes that increase your ability to get, stay and be organized are often looked upon as ways of increasing control and decreasing employees’ ability to use their imagination and creativity. While that’s possible, those are what I consider the wrong kinds of structure. Be sure your team understands the benefits you hope the company will gain from these changes. It’s far too easy to assume the wrong thing if you don’t tell them the intended outcome.

Tools and processes that increase the level of organization free your people to expend their energy on the things that require their intelligence and experience. If you use structure to control them and limit their ability to create and deliver solutions – you’re cheating yourself and your clients. Unless the controls you’re putting in place are intended to reduce / detect internal theft or similar problems, I suggest discussing proposed improvements with your staff so you are aware of possible downsides that you may not be aware of. Finally, deployment always benefits from front line feedback and of course, testing.

Chaos, frenetic activity and burning buildings

Years ago when the photo software company first started, it was not all butterflies and rainbows. Quite the opposite. Day one was full-on chaos. On Friday, the check was delivered and a jointly-written email (and written letter) from the old owner and I went out to every client. On Saturday, the code assets arrived. On Monday, reality arrived with a vengeance, along with a few hundred new-to-me (and annoyed) clients.

Instead of day one of a software company being a blank page full of “OK, what do we want to do and where do we start?”, day one was about the phone ringing off the hook. Most of the people calling eventually told me they were glad that someone took it over, but that was well after an awful lot of rescuing people (and their businesses) from the software equivalent of a burning building. While I didn’t create the situation, that didn’t matter. My purchase of that software meant that I also bought the chaos and inherited the responsibility (if not the blame) for it.

Without question, this is the worst kind of multi-tasking (as if there is a good kind). As a whole, my newly acquired clients looked more or less like this: Everyone panicking. Everyone worried about being able to take care of their clients. Everyone wanting a solution as soon as possible. Immediately would be OK too, of course, but most of them were surprisingly reasonable and patient (thankfully). I “inherited” it all via the purchase, so I clearly asked for it. Over the next few months, it took daily (or multiple daily) releases of software to bring all of that chaos to a halt. Back then, one (or five) releases a day seemed like such a big deal. Today, web-based software that runs companies like Uber and Etsy deploy thousands of changes per day.

That isn’t why I bring up this story. The chaos is.

Chaos management

If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you know that it’s easy to panic. To this day, I am not sure why I didn’t – other than having been in the software business for 15+ years at that point. Despite having been responsible for plenty of high value, high pressure systems prior to that, I always had others to help out if I needed them. This time, I didn’t. Sometimes you want something bad enough that you might even forget to panic. Maybe that’s what it was. I don’t say this to humblebrag. I mention it because I’ve taken part in numerous situations where other people were involved and I want you to think about the impact of this sort of chaos on your customer-facing staff members.

Business owners might find it easy to shrug off the panic and take the chaos in stride. You may have dealt with experiences that allow you to juggle all of this and handle it without freaking out. Where you have to be careful: your staff. If they’ve never been in this kind of situation, it’s on you to make sure they get the support they need and the guidance that helps them deal with the customer service equivalent of Black Friday at Wal-Mart.

If you haven’t dealt with this before, there’s a simple strategy that’s easy to forget when the overwhelm hits: One at a time. That’s it. While it’s simple and obvious, if your team doesn’t get a calming influence and “one at a time” (or something) from their leadership (whether it’s you or one of your managers), they could panic. They could shutdown. They could unintentionally say or do something damaging to your relationship with the client.

Responsibility for handling and communicating all of this is on you (and your managers). Your team needs your backing and guidance – and preferably know this in advance. They need to know that they can escalate to you or a manager if things get bad. Obvious (again), but it’s easy to forget these things if you’ve been out of the trenches for a while.

As for clients, I suggest this as a starting point to reduce panic on the other end of the phone:

  • Communicate early and often.
  • Make sure clients know you understand the situation’s urgency and severity.
  • Deliver incremental progress. Don’t wait for perfect.
  • How your team handles recovery from a mistake is often more important than the mistake itself.

Checklists delegate a process, not a task

One of the things that tends to plague solo business owners and managers in smaller companies is delegating complex tasks as the company grows. In “E-Myth” fashion, the owner and technician (whatever that means in your line of work) is faced with the choice of delegation or overwhelm as their company grows. Sometimes there are skills issues that slow this delegation, but I often find that the complexity of a simple (to the owner) task contributes to the challenge. Consider a task that is taken for granted by someone who has done it for years. Being able to take it for granted depends on experience and the benefit of having the mental version of muscle memory to perform these tasks. The delegating party doesn’t have to think hard to remember the steps, even if the steps are challenging, technical or difficult. Where things get interesting is when you delegate a technical task such as diagnosing a SQL problem.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what SQL is – it doesn’t matter. Replace my references to SQL with a relevant and challenging delegation subject. The subject can be any detailed topical area (technical or not) in your business, whether it’s international legal contracts, electronic ignitions or chainsaw chain sharpening. The WHAT doesn’t matter. The process is what we’re getting at.

Checklists build confidence

When I had to turn over some detailed SQL troubleshooting to folks who weren’t super experienced at SQL diagnosis, the area that tended to stop them wasn’t the individual tasks performed during diagnosis. The problem was determining (or knowing) which step to perform first… and why. This created a mental roadblock at first, even though these folks could perform each of the steps that I would perform while diagnosing a SQL problem. Their biggest challenge was not performing the troubleshooting tasks, it was knowing which tasks to do and in what order to perform them.

I solved this challenge (and some similar ones) with simple checklists. The solution is an obvious one to solve the roadblock that held up productive delegation of this work. Once I provided a checklist with some description of why I perform the steps at the time I perform them, things changed. Suddenly, I wasn’t getting questions about which step to try first, or “What should I try next?”. The checklists were taking the one remaining confusing thing off the table: What to do, when to do it and why to do it at that moment.

When you talk to someone who is experienced in diagnosing problems or performing similar tasks like this – they have an experience-based, innate sense of what to try first, next and next. While some of it is Occam’s razor, a good bit of what to do when comes from having been there before. The checklists helped fill a good bit of that experience gap simply by giving folks a sequence to follow even though it was simply sequencing tasks they already knew how to perform. Eventually, their own experience fills in the gaps and they start adding their own checklist steps and notes for why that step is next.

One of the things I noticed when providing a checklist is that the skills improved quickly once they had the list to follow. Rather than facing the blank page of “what do I do first” and the mental overhead that creates, these folks were using the checklist to help them learn the progression of steps. This eliminates the overhead and provides the mental headroom to improve their SQL skills while the checklist provides a framework or a process to work from.

Checklists – Not solely for the owner

The benefits of delegation checklists aren’t limited to owner / manager delegation. The often-missing (or incomplete) but sorely needed process documentation across the entire business is tough to get rolling. Rather than looking at it like the great American novel, start with what helps right now. Who has the next vacation? Who was recently out sick? Start with their tasks. Once you get rolling, it’ll be easier to step into the job and identity the types of tasks that demand a checklist. The priority of need for these checklists will start to become more apparent with each vacation, sick day and checklist creation.

Inauguration Week, a time to stay focused

I have written on this topic several times over the last 12 years: Inauguration Week. More specifically, what happens to the business world after Inauguration Day. When Bush 43 took over in 2001, there was hand wringing. Before Obama took over in 2009, there was hand wringing. And now, with Trump’s takeover days away, the sound of hands (w)ringing, toll yet again.

The problem? That new President-elect. “He / his policies / his party’s policies will ruin my business.” . Doesn’t matter which President-elect, even though it’s hard to imagine that the last three or four president-elects could be more different from one another. Even so, I hear the same refrain I’ve heard every four to eight years.

I can’t start a business with so-and-so / whichever party coming into power.

My business is in trouble with so-and-so / whichever party coming into power.

Sure, there is some impact

I don’t mean to say there won’t be some impact. This time around, like every time, there is likely to be some impact on the energy business, on taxes, on healthcare, etc. Thing is, they’re impacted seemingly all the time by legislation from both parties, by world events (war, finance, technology changes, OPEC) and more. Is the price of gas / diesel different than it was before Obama? Before Bush 43? Sure. And it will be pretty much every week for years until some point way off in the future when technology matures past the use of those fuels.

However, when it comes to most businesses, the impact is usually trivial and the concern overblown. How you serve your customers and how effectively you sell and market to them has a much bigger impact in most cases than anything some randomly chosen President can do.

Sure, there is a lot of change in Washington. There will be, as always, a lot of pieces moving around on the chess board, and there will be plenty of drama in the news. As there always is.

Little, if any, of this has anything to do with the success of your coffee shop, sandwich store, plumbing business, clothing store, software consultancy, etc.

Don’t let Inauguration Week and a new President distract you and your team. Stay focused on your plan and your goals.

Step away from the drama

There is plenty to look at in the news that can make you take your eye off the ball. Don’t let it win. There is plenty to distract and worry your employees and contractors. YOU have to maintain momentum and leadership. not the TV news. It’s your job to make sure your team doesn’t get distracted and lose confidence over whatever’s going on in the news.

Use all the change as a reason to refocus and stay focused. Use it to rally your team. Remind them that no President has ever had a dramatic effect on your business. Be sure they know that you believe that the group of people working there now will not be the one to allow this (or any) President to be the first to negatively impact your business.

I know this might seem silly to some, but the thought processes are out there. People are always worried about their future when these kinds of changes occur. It’s easy and the news doesn’t help.

You have a plan for the year, right?

I’m sure you have a plan for the year. We’re already halfway through January. Remind your team of where you are toward your January and 1st quarter targets. Given the lack of likely impact by the changes in DC, it’s an opportunity to show your team what early trends look like.

Your team and your market has had over two months since the election to settle down. If your business is down since that time, I hope you know why. It might be normal for this time of year. If it isn’t, determine the cause and share it with your team. The last thing they need is to let the belief that four or eight years of that is inevitable.

For the same reason, if your business is up over the last two months, be sure to explain why. Your team needs to know why and how their work is affecting results and not that something completely out of their control (like political change) is driving your business’s performance.

Keep them up to date on the plan, its progress and course corrections you’re making. Keep your eye (and theirs) on the ball.