The future of ethics

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

You hired them.

My answer? “You hired them.”

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

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

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

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

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

You didn’t fire them.

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

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

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

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

Hiring and not firing adds up

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

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

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

Reinforced bad behavior creates more instances of bad behavior.

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

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

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

Everyday ethics sends signals

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

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

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

Between a rock and a hard place

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

Why do my employees want a union?

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

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

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

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

When not to organize

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

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

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

Will it work?

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

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

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

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

Difficulty created in advance

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

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

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

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

A Labor Day perspective on performance

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

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

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

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

So, which quarterback do you want this year?

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

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

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

Quarterback A’s name is Drew Brees.

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

Yeah.”

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

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

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

Why role specific training matters

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

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

Why “disturbing”?

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

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

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

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

They reflect what we teach.

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

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

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

What about seasoned staffers?

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

Avoiding the blank sheet

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

Examples to get you started:

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

What ideas / suggestions do you have?

Reflecting on leadership

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

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

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

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

A substantial number have been training roles.

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

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

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

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

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

Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s a lifelong career lesson you depend on?

I graduated from college with a BS in Computer Science back in 1982. The timing was unfortunate. Interest rates had gone through the roof, cratering hiring, so the tried and true 1980s “every programmer graduate can find a job at an airline or oil company” situation was gone. My school’s BSCS was a very new program and really was more like a general engineering degree (lots of calculus, plus diff-e and more math, several physics courses, etc) with some programming courses tacked on. There wasn’t much resemblance to what most would consider a classic BSCS curriculum, but it didn’t matter too much back then.

My first job after college was at Ross Perot‘s Electronic Data Systems (EDS). Skipping forward several months, I came out of their training program, which everyone went through regardless of their degree. Didn’t matter if you had a CS degree or a history degree, you went. After training, my first mentor was a guy named Randall.

My first serious career lesson

Randall was few years older and had become a rising star in that area of the company. He was easy to look up to. He was smart, a bit of a jokester and someone people came to when they needed solutions to tough challenges. You could see what that meant to him and others. Unlike some in the tech space, he was happy to teach and provide access to resources to experiment with and learn from.

35 years later my strongest memory of Randall is a conversation that had a massive impact on my business life. It became a lifelong career lesson.

One day when I was tinkering around with something that probably had nothing to do with my job at the time (like an IBM mainframe virtual machine), he stared me down and said (paraphrased) “If you want to go places and move ahead (in this company), always be willing to take on new things even if you know nothing about them, then do whatever it takes to learn what’s needed.

It was years before I realized that his advice had become a consistent theme across that all the work situations I’ve been in since that time. It’d repeatedly been a door-opening differentiator. Thanks Randall, your advice that day was the most valuable thing a boss / co-worker / peer ever gave me.

What about “Business is Personal”?

I didn’t say there could only be one lifelong career lesson. “Business is Personal” is a business foundation, while Randall’s advice became a personal mindset & perspective.

The seeds of “Business is Personal” grew out of watching my photographer clients about 20 years ago. The level of personal touch that these folks maintained in their business was something much different than I’d ever seen. They thought about their relationship with their clients very deeply and used it to not only improve sales, but to create clients who stuck with them through each of the seasons of life.

In true “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” fashion, my business life turned a corner thanks to these folks. I suddenly saw every business through a different lens.

As an employer and business owner, “Business is Personal” took on a litany of nuances, year after year. It became the foundation of my consulting and writing because it has a broad application and touches so many parts of the business. It not only became a foundation for running a business, but it’s also a filter for businesses that I’ll do business with.

Ripples

Some non-traditional (for me) work eventually exposed “Business is Personal” as a nuanced connection between businesses, their employees, and the local community. Acquiring, caring for and retaining clients stabilized and helped grow those businesses and make them more resilient.

That stability ripples across families, schools, and quality of life in a community, impacting job creation and retention, crime, local funding, tourism, etc. Yes, it’s Economics 101.

That said, when explaining the “obligation” to get better at sales, customer service and marketing to a business owner as a means of impacting quality of life in their community, rather than “just a way to make more” – the big picture jumps out at them.

I’m curious what your core career lessons are. Have you thought about it? Have you thanked those who first instilled them in you?

Why would you want remote employees?

A friend who owns a manufacturing business recently decided to hire a remote software developer – his first remote employee. He asked if I had some advice for managing remote employees as he knows I’ve done so. In fact, I’ve managed remote team members in some way, shape or form since 1998. While the folks I work (and worked) with have been a mix of folks close to home and scattered around the globe, he’s starting with a remote developer here in the U.S.

Why remote employees?

Hiring a remote employee might seem like the craziest idea ever. Even so, remote work has been growing steadily since the late ’90s for several reasons: People have roots. Their families have jobs, friends, schools & communities they love, outdoor recreation your community can’t compete with (and vice versa), etc.

In the ’60s-’80s, when a company transferred or hired an employee who lived somewhere else, they generally paid movers to pack and move that employee’s possessions. In some cases, they would buy the employee’s old house if it didn’t sell within a reasonable amount of time. Serious investment. Remote work during those decades was difficult, but it still happened. Companies like IBM (“I’ve Been Moved”), Kodak, Xerox and others had field sales / service reps all over the country – and not always based out of a local company-owned office.

Today, such transfers are far less common. Companies lower their standards, extend their search effort, hire remote people or find another solution.

If an ideally trained, experienced candidate with domain-specific knowledge for your opening lives somewhere else, and cannot (or doesn’t want to) move to your town, do you:

  • Do without and settle for someone who isn’t ideal.
  • Keep looking and wait until the right (or close enough) local appears.
  • Hire no one and leave the opening unfilled.
  • Hire a local and invest in the proper training.
  • Ask a candidate to move to your town (think about how you might feel about that if the situation were reversed)

Questions to ask new remote employees

Have you worked remotely before?” should have been discussed during the interview. After the hire is not the time to start this conversation. The first time an employee transitions from in-office work to remote work is a substantial shift – more so than you hiring your first remote team member.

What’s your schedule?” and “What times do you regularly need to be away?” aren’t probing personal questions. They let both sides discuss expectations and avoid surprises.

For example, I take kids to the bus stop a little after 8:00 am. I pick them up a little after 3:00 pm and a little before 4:00pm. As you might expect, there’s a few minutes of “cat herding” that takes place before the morning bus stop and after the two afternoon bus stops. While no one depends on me to be in a certain place with immediate availability at any specific moment of the day, it’s important to communicate the team’s schedule on both ends.

Likewise, it’s on me to make sure someone understands my schedule when we’re trying to arrange a meeting time. If I am trying to finish up before the bus stop or am rushed to get to a meeting just after a bus stop time, meeting prep (or the meeting itself) isn’t as productive or focused. That isn’t fair to clients or your remote employer. It’s as important to discuss the times where all hands are expected to be available for scrums, meetings, standups, etc.

Lunch is a good example of scheduling, even though you might not give it much thought. Some people eat lunch at their desk. Some like to get out of the house and meet a friend. Some mix it up a bit, often because working at home by yourself can be lonely. Some people need regular interaction, and text chat (like Skype, HipChat, or Slack) doesn’t feed that need. None of these things are wrong, but when your phone rings and you don’t answer, or you answer and a noisy restaurant is what your employer hears – they’ll wonder. It’s natural. You don’t want to make them wonder. You want them to know what to expect.

It’s OK to say “On Thursdays, I meet a few friends for lunch, so I’m not around from 11:30 to 1, and I start early or finish late those days“, as long as you’ve worked that out with people who need to reach you. This isn’t about someone expecting to know your butt is in your seat every minute of the day. It’s about being considerate of both parties.  It’s about trust.

Tell me about your workspace” – also isn’t a probing personal question. An employer or client has an expectation that you aren’t trying to work in a room full of toddlers, barking dogs, or gaming teenagers. Speaking of, summer plans are important. If you have young school-age kids, how will they be cared for while you’re working? Will they be in a different space than you? If the kids are older, it generally isn’t a problem, while two to seven year olds don’t generally manage their day on their own.

If this isn’t the new employee’s first remote rodeo, it’s a good idea to ask them what worked and what didn’t work in previous remote gigs. Take advantage of their experience and perspective – it will almost certainly add nuance to my comments. This gives you the chance to learn from another owner / manager’s efforts at no charge, and it will help you understand the persona, priorities and needs of your new remote worker.

Communication

Work out a protocol for communication during travel, weekends, evenings and during emergencies. This is really no different for a local employee than it is for a remote one, other than the fact that a manager can’t easily show up at the front door of a remote employee. If you’ve ever done that for business purposes, your communication plans probably need work. Showing up to pay your respects or attend a BBQ isn’t “business purposes”.

An emergency might be that your biggest client is having a meltdown or that there’s an angry boyfriend at the office. Either way, establish a protocol for getting the word out, conveying its severity, & indicating what action (if any) is necessary.

Keep in mind that every family (thus, every team member) may have different needs. Babies, shift work & roommates impact phone/ringer use.

Relationships

Mentoring & the “first friend” – No matter how many years of experience they have, they’re new to you. New people need mentoring. Even if they don’t need it with the work you hired them to do, there are plenty of reasons why their “first friend” at work will prove beneficial.

Do you hire someone to stay in the same position “forever”, or do you want them to grow into a position they aren’t yet ready for? Even if you don’t expect a new hire would be ready to run your shop in five years, they’ll almost never get ready without training, mentorship and interim experience to prepare them for that role.

Qualified people still need mentors. They also need to be mentors. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sooner than later – and with intention.

Connection – Remote employees need connection to the nest. Bring them on-site early and often. It’s particularly important to make this happen early on. Everyone at the home office needs connection with those remote employees. They need to be able to trust their word, trust their work and think of them as they do any other member of the team. This isn’t just about the line employee. It’s about the managers as well. When the remote employee becomes a black box in a room in another town that no one can see, the unseen person and their work are easy to devalue. This could happen even if their work happens to be strategic. The reverse is also true. They need the opportunity to understand the value of their peers work as well their colleagues do.

Team meals – For a business with on-site employees, team meals (on campus or not) are a commonly-used way to build team harmony and nurture relationships between team members. This may not be easy particularly effective with remote employees, so be sure to have these meals when remote employees are on site.

Video meetings (IE: conference calls with webcam) – Some people really dislike the addition of video to a call. People are fussy about their hair or generally how they look, don’t want to be seen eating during a call, are sensitive to what’s visible in their work space (like that monstrous Siamese cat laying next to the keyboard), and/or the idea of others seeing them appear to be disinterested because they’re multi-tasking during a meeting.

Ease into this. Start with short, less critical meetings to raise the comfort level. You’ll probably need to set the example for a while so people get comfortable with it. It’ll make everyone more aware of the ambient noise and distractions in their (and others’) workspace. In a face-to-face meeting, most people can manage their facial responses to a speaker’s comments. Experienced conference callers have learned to mute early and often, but may not be practiced at managing expressions when video is introduced.

The lesson: Don’t make a big deal out of the expressions you see on video. Use them as a signal to ask for group feedback. It’s natural for facial expressions to change when we hear something we have questions about, don’t like, don’t agree with, or don’t understand. I prefer the Zoom (all faces on screen) way of doing this, mostly because it seems to train everyone that their expressions change while listening to people talk. Most of us don’t want to embarrass a co-worker, much less ourselves. Use it as an advantage and an opportunity to improve, not as a way to create drama.

Does this differ for workers outside the US?

Usually.

The differences between inside-the-US & outside-the-US team members include (in decreasing order of owner/manager/employee pain & suffering): Culture and values, enterprise experience, time zones, environment, infrastructure, payment & language.

Culture & values – Not everyone thinks like a U.S.-based employee/owner. Start by remembering that and keep remembering it. You’re used to what you’re used to. Others are just as used to their experience and how their work habits were formed.

Remember when asking for help was considered by some to be a sign of weakness? It remains that way among some groups because the pace of change differs among groups, and likewise among cultures. Every country’s culture has its range of work habits, inclination to ask for help, communication styles, etc. If you find yourself frustrated, ask questions that allow new people to unwrap what happened. Cultural learning is difficult to change. Differences in cultural norms should be expected. Both parties need to take steps to help everyone understand one another.

Company cultures and values work the same way. There are things that your company does your way – your culture and values. You should expect employees to take those seriously, regardless of their upbringing, culture, etc. Sometimes this takes training, mentors, etc. Someone who has never experienced a culture like yours will need help (and time) to them learn your culture and values. You may hire someone who is used to being browbeaten over deadlines, or they may have never worked under a deadline. No matter what their experience has been in the past, your experience is probably different. It will take time for your culture and values to become their new normal. Trust takes time and it goes both ways.

Enterprise experience – Enterprise experience is about more than buildings full of servers or time working at large multi-national companies. It’s about having a mindset that goes beyond the current project. It’s about having the ability to look around corners (and knowing that’s important), seeing the big picture, understanding inter-departmental needs, and communicating effectively with others whether they’re C-level execs, your team’s family members, prospects on the trade show floor, or high school kids on a field trip. Enterprise experience can mean more than that, but it starts with mindset, the big picture, and communication.

Time zones – Time zones can be a blessing and a curse. When your team member is seven to ten time zones east of you, you might start your day at 3:00 pm or later in their day. Good, because you have a bunch of work to review. Bad, because you only have an hour or two before the end of their day. Some folks work their normal hours (ie: 8:00am to 5:00pm in their time zone), some work normal hours in yours. You have to figure out what works best for you and for your team member. One thing about having them work your hours is that it may tempt them to take a job in their time zone, then work your job once the other job’s time is done. You need to ask that question. You don’t want your work to be their second job – which could affect your pay scale for them.

Environment -Not everyone lives in a pleasant, treed cul-de-sac in a neighborhood with people they’ve known for a decade, or on five quiet acres on the edge of town. I have had remote team members tell me that their apartment building was hit by gunfire – and they kept working. Culture & experience train you to know when it’s time to take cover, leave, etc.

Infrastructure – People in some countries lose power far more often than U.S. folks are accustomed to. This is not something your remote worker can control, other than by moving to another country. The good news is that a laptop combined with a UPS can easily fuel a full day’s work.

Payment – Five years ago, this was much harder. Paypal, TransferWise, Upwork simplified the process & traditional methods are still available. Some countries are still a bit of a challenge but for the most part, this barrier has all but evaporated.

Language – Most business people I encounter from outside the U.S. speak English fairly well. This has been my experience with both solo consultants and employees of large companies outside the U.S.

One more thing about remote folks. Visit them a couple times a year, if you can. It won’t be cheap. It probably won’t be easy and it will occasionally frustrate – but most of the negatives come from getting there, not from being there. When you visit them, you learn far more about them, their motivations and how they work than you’d ever learn in a video meeting or a phone call.

Links for working with remote employees

A few links that might come in handy:

https://biz30.timedoctor.com/scale-your-remote-team/

https://blog.trello.com/master-remote-team-communications

https://blog.trello.com/tips-for-tackling-remote-work-challenges

https://blog.trello.com/how-to-stop-micromanaging-your-remote-team

https://shift.newco.co/why-i-only-work-remotely-2e5eb07ae28f

https://thenextweb.com/lifehacks/2015/09/03/7-habits-of-exceptionally-successful-remote-employees/

http://www.enmast.com/7-tips-empowering-employees-remote-work

https://medium.com/taking-note/the-secret-to-remote-work-its-not-all-about-you-ff8cd862d704?source=linkShare-c89c09aefc29-1516770156

Photo by Kim de Groote 1980

Sell. Don’t simply take orders

For many businesses, the best month or two of the year ended late last week. For others, it starts next week. Your “big month or so” might be some other time. The real question is, will you sell, or will you only take orders?

This year, many businesses and their teams chose to take orders. You probably experienced this personally at least once this year. Anyone can take orders. Maybe they’ll need a form, a point of sale system or a yellow pad combined with some guidance from the customer, but ANYONE can take orders.

Does “anyone” work for you? Or does your sales team have industry expertise? My guess is that the latter is true.

Taking orders

The last time I was in what should have been a consultative sale, rather than speaking to someone with industry expertise, I was given to an administrative assistant who appeared to have little domain knowledge. The admin was following a computer form to sell me what I appeared to need. I’m OK with that when there’s no choice or when the sale is doesn’t involve financial risk, safety, or similarly serious matters.

Even when those things are involved, it’s OK to start the process with an admin and a computer screen when there’s follow up by someone with industry expertise. Unfortunately, there was no follow up by anyone in their office to be sure that I got not only what I wanted – but also what I needed.

Customers buy stuff.

Sell

When financial risk or safety is involved, someone has to be there to consider what carnage might be introduced into your clients’ lives. Don’t make your clients do your job. I would be far less concerned about the admin-driven sales process if follow up occurred. In this case, the downside risk is awful, annoying, inconvenient and time-consuming. They know this.

Despite this, I wasn’t asked about a four dollar a month option that would manage much of that risk. This is why follow up occurs. While it will almost certainly increase your upside, it will also show your clientele that you’re taking care of them.

You can show the team what taking orders feels like, then show them what selling feels like. Ever talked with a bad (or perhaps poorly trained) life insurance salesperson? Ever talked with a good one? The difference is amazing.

If there’s any sort of consultative selling process in your line of work, the difference probably feels amazing to your customers. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in.

For example, go to WallyWorld to consider buying a power tool. Got questions? What will happen? Now go to Ace or the Depot on a Saturday mid-morning. I suspect you’ll find the experience differs.

Customers often buy solely based on price. Clients tend to buy based on the expertise of those caring for them. Sure, they might run to WallyWorld for a commodity, but when domain knowledge is essential – they’ll come to the expert.

Clients are taken care of.

Review their work

If you do have an admin or inexperienced salesperson take care of the initial sale, review what they sold to your client.

Not simply now and then. Review EVERY sale.

If you have to contact the client to fix or complete the sale, be sure to include the person who made the initial sale. Call or email. Ask questions. Make sure they got what they wanted. Ask questions to make sure they got what they needed. Do you need to suggest any changes based on your experience, or what you know about me? Do you have questions that aren’t part of the form the admin uses? Perhaps that form is issues by your national provider and you need to apply some local knowledge to properly configure a purchase.

If the admin or inexperienced person did everything right – tell the client and tell whoever made the sale. Both need confidence in your team members with less experience.

If it didn’t go well, it identifies an opportunity to review your process and improve the sales materials your team uses, even if that means yours are over and above what the national dealer provides for you (or perhaps forces on you).

This coming year, decide to sell. Anyone can take orders. Remember: Customers buy stuff. Clients are taken care of. There’s a big difference.

Went to the gym once. Didn’t work.

You’ve probably heard about things that didn’t work in someone else’s business. The story probably included an assertion that whatever isn’t working for someone else also wouldn’t so won’t work in yours. The tool itself is generally irrelevant. More often than not, the problem is a lack of consistency.

Execution isn’t easy. We do the wrong things. We do the right things at the wrong time. We fail to prioritize, or prioritize poorly – often doing the urgent rather than than the important. Each of those things have their own solution, tactic, or cure. The challenge is executing every day, every hour, every appointment – as appropriate for the solution, tactic, or cure. To be as effective and efficient as possible, all of these things require consistent execution.

We all have a ton of things to do. It takes a systematic intent to consistently eliminate tasks of no / low value, making room for the high value work our peers and customers need most.

Consistency gives

Consistency has a number of benefits. If you are consistently good, people will depend on you / your company – and soon get to the point where their expectations are that you will always do, say, and deliver what they expect. This clientele will tell people. Some of them, the most rabid types, will tell lots of people. A small percentage of them will practically take it as an insult if one of their friends or colleagues don’t use their consistent vendor.

Consistency gives your clients something steady to latch onto at a time when many of them feel there is little they can depend on other than themselves. Outside of your spouse and perhaps a few others, do you have a vendor you can depend on no matter what? One that you would bet your business on? Think about the peace of mind that would give you if you had that kind of vendor (or vendors) in place.

Consistency is a quality you can sell, price higher, and use as leverage when competing for a new customer. Anyone can make a single sale. Consistent vendors make that sale while claiming an asset – a new, long term customer.

Consistency takes

Do you have vendors or places you do business with as a consumer where you always have to remind about delivery or deadlines? Do you frequently have to correct a vendor’s work or invoices / paperwork? Do their work habits force you to be the one who must consistently follow up about promises, on-time delivery, service windows, quality and completeness? Is that the exception or the rule?

How does that make you feel? What’s it feel like the next time you have to purchase or get service from a vendor like that? Do you dread it?

Are you repeatedly changing vendors in an attempt to find one that you can consistently depend on? How does that feel?

Does your business track churn?

Churn happens when a business gets X new customers and loses Y customers each month. If you have to track it, you’ve probably got a churn problem. Maybe it reflects the direction and growth of your MRR (monthly recurring revenue) due to your business model.

Churn happens because customers cannot depend upon multiple vendors in your market. Yes, others are part of this as well, otherwise new customers wouldn’t be filling YOUR bucket that’s also leaking customers every month. Some may be new to the market, but a reasonable percentage of those new customers are coming from other vendors who aren’t taking good care of them. How long will you keep them? Consistency is a factor.

If you ever ask a former customer who churned away from you, they will almost always say they left because of price. Price is an easy excuse to use and it’s one they know you will be least likely to argue about. However, churn is rarely about price. More often than not, it’s the last straw after a customer has lost patience in the consistency of your product / service quality. First they get frustrated, then the investment seems like a waste, and finally, they’ve had enough.

No one gets into business to intentionally be bad at something. It takes effort. Wasted motion. Lost focus. Lack of intent.

Process by process, employee by employee, consistent execution improves quality. Going to the gym once doesn’t produce ideal results. Neither does inconsistent execution.Photo by Dan Harrelson

Are you using comfortable tools?

Almost all work teams use tools. Sometimes these tools change over time, sometimes they don’t. Some tools have a long history and rarely change from their original form – other than perhaps the materials they’re made of. The pocket knife is a good example. While it was once wood, bone or stone, over centuries it evolved to steel and other metals. Today, you can buy a pocket knife in almost any form you want. If you have the right tools, you could make the knife yourself.

Comfortable tools, comfortable shoes

We can get so comfortable with a favorite tool that we don’t consider the use of alternatives. In some cases, we might be blind to alternatives or improvements. Either we don’t realize that everyone who generally does what we do has moved on to new, better, safer, or more productive tools, or we aren’t paying much attention to changes in our industry.

Tools become like comfortable shoes or a car that we’ve owned for a long time. They fit just right. They don’t give us blisters (real or mental). We become so adept at using them to perform our work that they become a part of us. We can use them to perform a task and find ourselves done with the task and realize that we performed the task without really thinking about it. At that point, work becomes much like muscle memory. We can do it inattentively or without focused thought.

While this sort of comfort and familiarity is a good thing, we need to be careful not to let ourselves be lulled into complacency.

Are your tools state of the art, or close?

When we don’t get outside of our comfort zone on tools – and this could be tools of any kind – things can happen to our work and our output that we never saw coming. If you still use a claw hammer for every nail you drive, the houses you build will be as sturdy as those built by someone with a modern tool like the pneumatic nail gun. The problem you might run into is your level of productivity would be the close to what it was 40 years ago. That might seem ok until your ability to complete a structure in a particular time frame is compared to builders who use nail guns.

The nail gun is an example and these issues aren’t limited to any single trade, skill, or career. Even if you love your industry’s equivalent of the claw hammer, it’s worth taking time to review the alternatives that have sprouted in the last year. Some industries experience tool changes quite frequently. In particular, software changes in many industries, but there are many other changes that occur frequently that you may not want to (or need to) switch to. Even so, stay aware of them.

Flavor of the month

Tools in some industries change so frequently that keeping up with them can put a serious dent in productivity. Thrashing around because you’re constantly changing to the “flavor of the month” tool-wise adds hidden burdens to your productivity and costs to the bottom line. This is one of those areas where you see software changes creating problems. This isn’t as much about the software industry as it is about the industry where the tools are used. The software business has plenty of challenges with flavor of the month technologies – but they aren’t alone.

If you feel like you are repeatedly tempted by the “bright, shiny object” tool-wise, stop to reflect a bit on what’s creating the desire to switch to another tool. Is it desire or need? Marketing tools frequently fall into this category, while proven, productive activities such as the manual labor of following up after a sales call are neglected.

Tool changes are often positioned as eliminating the need for a skilled craftsman (regardless of gender), or eliminating the need for a tool user with substantial training and experience. Safety is often a prime component in the introduction of newer tools. None of these things replace training, skill, and experience with a tool. Even with 3-D printing and similar technologies, there’s skill, experience and training at some point in the process.

Build a process with your team that evaluates new tools and gets people to stretch their comfort zone beyond the tools they’re familiar with. This tempers “random” tool changes & allows both experienced & novice staff to offer input & learn the business process for evaluating tools.

Photo by moonrat42