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.


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.


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?


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:








Photo by D-Stanley 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.


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

The ingredients of effective criticism

Today we’re going to use a common political event (and some football) to discuss the effective delivery of criticism.

Recently a new candidate joined a local political race. The new candidate’s campaign has spent plenty of time pointing out things that are broke, need attention, or didn’t go well. That doesn’t mean the candidate has nothing to say, nor that they have nothing valuable to add to the conversation about how their community is run. Even so, this “list” dominates their campaign while offering no specifics about their qualifications for office.

Criticism is not a qualifying skill

We all have the right to bring attention to things that aren’t working or need improvement. Even so, the ability to identify problems doesn’t qualify us to run the organization exhibiting those problems.

For example, my alma mater is (putting it politely) having a rough decade on the football field. It’s easy to note my team’s problems (or at least the symptoms), including their consistent inability to win a game after trailing at the half. When this doesn’t happen for six years, it stands out.

The ability to identify the team’s problems doesn’t qualify me to run a NCAA football program. That’s why I didn’t offer a solution. I might have theories, but management expertise doesn’t make you a coach.

The same kind of expectations exist for that political office. It’s real work. The ability to criticize isn’t enough. The job requires related experience.

If you want a job that requires leading the management of a $25 million budget, people expect that you’d have a fair amount of experience successfully managing a budget of at least low seven figures. Criticizing your opponent’s handling of the budget is fair game. Likewise, so is the public’s desire to hear about your experience and specifics about what you’d do differently and why.

If you want a job that requires leading the management of a team of ~900 employees, you should have experience successfully leading the management of a team of 100 or more. Tell us about your management successes, what you learned from your management struggles, and specifically how you’d make things better. Don’t think we won’t be taking notes and coming back to them to remind you of your suggestions if you win.

Criticism in the workplace has similar demands. If you provide context and propose specific solutions, great. If you’re simply complaining – does that help you, the company, or your target?

Embarrassing people isn’t criticism. It’s ego.

While I frequently discuss inept, unfortunate, or unproductive business behaviors I’ve experienced, I avoid mentioning the business. Why? Embarrassing an employee or business owner serves no purpose. It doesn’t improve the lesson / advice. It doesn’t positively serve the reader, or the business. It’s the kind of criticism that accomplishes nothing.

I prefer to shine a light on things a business can improve how they serve their customers. In turn, this gives the business a better chance of not just surviving – but thriving. It should also build job security for their team, and help the owner’s family benefit from the risk they took wh en opening a business.

To make your team’s feedback loop more valuable, teach them how to deliver effective criticism.

Criticism delivery determines the response

Whether running for office, grumbling about your team, or criticizing how you were treated in a local business, how you deliver that criticism says more about you than it does the recipient. It also plays a substantial part in how your criticism is received and the response you receive.

Criticism is not a bad thing. We all need it. It serves the recipient, not the one delivering it. Much of the criticism people given these days serves only the ego of the person doling it out – and does nothing for the person receiving it.

Ego-driven criticism looks like this: “(business / org / person) is terrible at (whatever). Fire them.

Effective criticism is intended and designed to help those receiving it, rather than drawing attention to the provider.

When delivering criticism, include specifics and where possible, suggestions for improvement. Describe the problem behavior / activity / outcome. Compare it to the desired behavior / activity / outcome. Discuss solutions. Ask how you can help. The outcome is usually what needs to be fixed, not the person.

Think about the best criticism you’ve received. What made it so valuable? Consider that when criticizing the work of others. You’re giving them a gift.

Photo by AutrementDit Toronto.

Raise productivity by lowering cognitive load

Are you trying to figure out how to help your team become more productive? Traditional efforts to raise productivity will help, but are they enough? At some point, you’ll find that the law of diminishing returns will take over. Rather than give up, you & your team need to reassess the team’s workload and how it’s handled.

It’s important! It’s mandatory.

Traditional attempts at workload assessment usually include a re-prioritization of tasks. Regular priority assessment is a good thing, but not often a great thing. Sometimes it resembles “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. What takes a re-prioritization from good to great is leaving your team open to not assigning a priority to EVERYTHING – i.e.: giving permission to not do a task. It’s OK to identify work as “work we don’t need to do”, or “work we don’t want to do”. However, your team still has to do this work because “It’s important!” and/or “It’s mandatory”.

There’s “mandatory because the law requires it”, but there’s a second form of mandatory that’s rarely talked about: “mandatory because I said so”. Some tasks legitimately fit this criteria, but many shouldn’t. The quote “Mandatory is one of the crutches we use when we can’t lead people.” speaks to these tasks. I’ll bet we’ve all seen this type of mandatory task in the workplace.

Mandatory doesn’t mean a person has to do it

Mandatory workloads tend to be administrative and clerical work placed on non-admin / non-clerical team members. Sometimes, it even includes administrative and/or clerical work placed on admin / clerical folks. Some of this work is necessary and important, like timekeeping for employees whose time is billed out to a customer. The rest should be subject to re-prioritization.

Your team has to stop doing unimportant work so that they can focus on what IS important. I’m sure you’ve heard and thought that before. Even so, we continue to put more “administrivia” work on our people. Sometimes this work is important, but if you look a little harder at it, you’ll find that much of it can be delegated. My favorite team member to delegate this kind of work to is “systems”.

Why do you want to either stop doing this work or delegate it to someone other than an employee? Cognitive load.

Every task you give a person increases their cognitive load. Take a high-value employee who does focused work for you. If in addition to that work, they also have five or more daily administrative / clerical tasks on their plate, those things have to be remembered.

Why does cognitive load matter?

Ever notice how you suddenly remember things at two am, or when on a walk, or while on an airplane? At two am, you’re usually sleeping. On a walk, your mind is free of all the things at your desk. On an airplane, the restrictive environment means your phone is useless and often, so is your computer. Those environments have a lower cognitive load, and suddenly, your brain remembers things again.

Extra tasks competing for brain power create “rush hour traffic” for the brain. Driving a car full of kids in heavy, urban traffic is more mentally draining than driving them on the open road. The complexity of heavy traffic and urban roads make driving more challenging. Add a bunch of kids in the car and.. well, you’re probably all over what cognitive load means. Add darkness, rain, and fog. Each layer increases the cognitive load your brain must manage in order to drive.

New administrative and/or clerical work increase the total cognitive load for employees who do focus work, decreasing the importance of their “real work”. Are these admin tasks more important than the number one task any random team member is expected to complete that week? My guess is that they aren’t.

Lowering cognitive load via systems

Work that requires deep thought is sabotaged by interruptions. We “clump” meetings together in order to reduce interruptions and increase available focus time. We clean our office to reduce clutter – and thus visual “noise” / distractions. Unnecessary tasks, office clutter and interruptions all add to cognitive load.

People under high cognitive load don’t need darkness, fog, or rain (interruptions / clerical work) added to their “drive” (workload). While these tasks can’t always be eliminated, they can often be automated. If someone is making a phone call or checking a website multiple times per day to determine if an action should be taken, is there a way to automate that determination? If you have systems tracking various aspects of your business, is someone manually tabulating that info? Is there a way to automate that tabulation? What can you eliminate or reduce? What can you automate?

Photo of Atlas by Simon Cope

Sustainable revenue demands leadership

Recently, an employee of a tool company publicly commented (in a snarky way) about another vendor in their market. The target of his remarks isn’t a competitor. They create tools which complement what’s created by tools sold by the company that the snarky guy works for. Do employees who publicly snark about a vendor (or a client) think about the outcome of a vendor conflict that escalates badly? Perhaps. Let’s take a look at what’s at stake. The situation speaks to the leadership you provide to your people, even at a small company, and how it affects the sustainability of your company, and possibly that of your market.

What does sustainable company really mean?

We talk about sustainable companies and how culture, hiring, marketing, product, service, and leadership all contribute to create a company that lasts a very long time. Let’s tear this down into the pieces you and I can directly relate to. We’ll do it in the context of the two companies I’m referring to, but keep in mind that these things affect every company – including yours.

Many millions of dollars (and other currencies) are made each year from work created by the tools sold by the company that snarky guy works for. The company is rather small and one might think they’re insignificant in the big picture when compared to the big vendors who own that market internationally. You might think the same thing about your business. Don’t. When you look at regularly performed analyses of tool usage worldwide, the snarky guy’s company rarely appears on the list. In the rare occasions when it does appear on such lists, it’s in the second 50 or second hundred. In this market (perhaps like yours), it may seem insignificant. As such, why should we care what one employee said in public, right?

The leadership of that “insignificant” company should care. As should you when your people speak.

The math of an “insignificant” company

While there may “only” be 5000 to 10000 people worldwide who own tools made by snarky guy’s company, a portion of them are generating a good income – good enough to support their families for decades in some cases. This is not “random math”. I know a fair number of these folks. Many have employees. A few have 50 or more employees in the U.S. and/or scattered around the globe, and/or their products are a critical tools for companies with many employees.

When you take that community as a whole, we’re conservatively talking about between 100,000 and 200,000 people affected by the income generated via products created by these tools. Included in that figure are employees, customers, family members of the vendors, client companies, and other groups directly affected by that income. Expand that to the users of the products created by these people by adding those who make a living from the products. Add those making a living where these products are a critical tool in their work day. Now add their employees and families. Add the vendors all of these companies and families buy from. While this tool isn’t a global leader (and that’s OK), it still creates a significant amount of impact. For those who keep the lights on and their kids fed based on income rooted in those tools or businesses run by products created with those tools, it’s quite personal.

I suspect the 100,000 to 200,000 figure is quite low, even though it’s the estimated cumulative impact of one small tool maker who rarely (if ever) shows up on the radar of their industry. Small, much like the impact from any number of small businesses in your town. Including yours, perhaps.

So how does leadership affect sustainability?

The impact of even the smallest of companies must be taken seriously. Your company may seem insignificant compared to large multi-nationals, but the sustainability and leadership of your company has real impact. It affects homes, cars, kids, retirements, groceries, utility bills, and college plans for more families than you may have considered. Your team’s behavior follows the leadership example you set, which reflects upon your community, your company and you. Counsel your people about speaking about your company, your clients, your competitors, and those you collaborate with even in the smallest of ways. The smallest of things start a forest fire. When they do, everyone gets burned. Photo by Payton Chung

Work, Caring, and Filtering Employers

While last week’s “don’t work and don’t care” piece was inspired by comments about millennial workers, those “tests” evaluate things important about all prospective employees. Yet there’s more. One non-millennial responded: “Saw your blog post. Filtering employees is only part of the problem. The other side of the coin is filtering employers.

Exactly. So how do you filter employers?

Don’t filter employers because…

Do you avoid employers who filter prospective employees as I described? Don’t. The more care someone takes when hiring someone to join your team, the more likely that person will fit in and carry their share of the load. Good employers have learned to place small obstacles or tasks in the process to identify those who don’t pay attention to details and/or don’t follow instructions. “Email your resume to gimmeajob@company.com in Microsoft Word format” tells someone you aren’t a bot, you read and follow instructions, and you have a baseline of necessary skills. Can you use Word? Can you email an attachment? Is your grammar horrific? Did you use a spellchecker? If you submit a resume littered with errors, employers will rightly discern that you aren’t a good fit for their work, or the quality their work demands. For some jobs, these kinds of skills things are critical – even if they aren’t the core job skill.

Some employers have a complex interview process. As long as the interviews are engaging, it’s OK. If some interviewers are disinterested or not engaged (such as during a team interview), give the impression they don’t want to be there, or are unprepared to interview you, investigate. Ask about their hiring process. They’ll either be able to describe it, or not. If they tap dance, beware. Ask why they are involved in the process of selecting you as a candidate, but do so late in the discussion. You don’t want probing questions to take the interviewer off-task.

Even so, they need to sell you on their company as a good place to work. How prepared for the interview was this person? Did they seem to know little about you? Did you get the impression they were reading your resume, cover letter and other materials for the first time while conducting the interview? This could indicate a lack of organization, a lack of preparation, a random “Hey, go interview this person” assignment, or it could be that the person who normally conducts that interview is traveling or sick.

Filtering employers

You already know that you’ll be asked if you have questions. Do you prepare for them in advance? It’s clear from my comments that you should expect the interviewer to be prepared – and the same holds for you. The quality of your questions is critical.

Your questions during the interview:

  • Indicate whether or not you did your homework on the company.
  • Identify reason(s) to walk away, or become even more enthusiastic about the job.
  • Help the interviewer figure you out while letting you play detective.

About 20 years ago, I flew to West Virginia to interview for a senior executive-level position. Something seemed off, so I dug deeper than usual. At the time, online information was scarce, except for stock market info. I found news of a buyout, a bankruptcy, & reorganization. I asked about these things during my visit. They were floored – no one else asked about these events. They told me later that these questions were the turning point to them making an offer. I didn’t take the job, but I learned a valuable lesson about homework.

Ask about:

  • … company meetings: Do they have an agenda? Are people there who don’t need to be? Are they frequent or infrequent? Are they productive? These things speak to management style and organization, among other things.
  • … projects: How are projects managed? What happens after a successful project? What about an unsuccessful one? Ask to hear project “war stories”.
  • … the sales team: Some companies have them, some do not. The longevity of the sales team, if there is one, can indicate how things are going.
  • … how they use data: Is there a CRM or other strategic data use?
  • … their on-boarding process. What should you expect day one?
  • … crisis management. How did the last crisis / emergency get handled? What did the company learn from it? Was it something that allowed a change in process / design so it could be prevented in the future? How did this affect the staff?

If someone wonders why you care about these things – tell them that you’re looking for a solid, well-run company to grow with, not simply a paycheck.

Photo by adpowers

They don’t want to work & they don’t care like I do

Human resources. Human capital. Two terms that I really don’t care much for (especially the latter one), yet they attempt to describe what is usually the most important part of your business: employees.

You might think your customers / clients are the most important part of your business, but without good employees who want to take care of your clients, one of two things happens: Either you won’t have any clients or you’ll be doing all the work yourself – which sounds more like a job than it does a business. Two complaints I hear most often: “They don’t want to work” and “They don’t care like I do“.

They don’t want to work

If you have people working for you who don’t want to work, it’s not their fault. It is your company’s fault because the company hired them.

They may be lazy. You may be exactly right about why they are lazy, but it doesn’t matter. The fact that they are lazy and the reason(s) for that laziness are irrelevant. It’s relevant that the company hired them before figuring out they were lazy. Your job as the hiring manager is to find a way to figure out who is lazy (etc) and be sure not to hire them.

Repeatedly complaining (for example) that “all millennials are lazy and don’t want to work” is not only incorrect, but a waste of time. If the millennials your company hired don’t want to work, blame the broken process used to hire them. If three of every 100 applicants show the right stuff, then make sure your process finds the three.

Hiring people is easier if you put a process in place that makes it all but impossible for someone to join your team when they have the attributes of someone who can’t be successful at your place. This process doesn’t come in a box from Amazon. You can’t simply open the box and plug it in. It requires ongoing attention. It’s work. It takes time. It isn’t easy. The process needs to involve the people a prospective employee will work with, and those they will work for.

There are people who shouldn’t work at your place with your people. Your job is to eliminate them before you hire them. To eliminate each attribute that you don’t want working at your business, you add steps to the process that identify those attributes. “Drama queen” is a one of the attributes I eliminate, noting that these folks are both male and female.

Do you want to hire passive aggressive jerks who will tick off your customers? If not, your hiring process needs a way to filter out those people. Sometimes, it isn’t easy, but if you wanted “easy”, you shouldn’t have started / bought a business.

Attributes like lazy, passive aggressive, or any other that cause you to wish you’d never hired someone are no different than “must be able to lift 70 pounds”. They are a minimum qualification for employment. It isn’t the job prospect’s responsibility to apply only for jobs that they are ideal for. That might be nice, but isn’t realistic. It’s your job to sort them.

They don’t care like I do

Of course they don’t. Remember, they aren’t owners, so it will be rare that they will care like you do. They don’t have as much at risk as the owner and they sure don’t have as much potential upside as the owner.

Expecting someone to act like an owner at $10 an hour is silly. Training them to think like an owner and then giving them more responsibility (and more cash) when they act that way is a whole different thing. Some will still work hard, but won’t think like an owner. Some will work hard and think like an owner once they are trained and learn that there are things to be gained by doing so.

A rare few will act like an owner, at least to the extent they can. “These people” will start caring when they figure out that you do. That starts at the hiring time. If you find a way to stop adding lazy, crazy, and dazed to their department, they will notice. If you ask them for referrals, they won’t suggest you hire their dodgy, lazy friends. It simply makes more work for them. Instead, you’ll get the friends they trust to do their part.

Photo by jonny goldstein

“Sink or Swim” is not training

Pentagon Secretary Rumsfeld once said “…you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” He wasn’t referring to the Army personnel, or to their level of training, but to the number of Humvees that were not armored and therefore prepared for Iraq-style guerrilla warfare, IEDs, etc.

While you don’t need armored equipment for your team, they do still need to be prepared to succeed in their roles. Failing that, they will show up and do their best. Rumsfeld’s troops may have lacked the amount of armored equipment, but they didn’t lack training.

That is one of the primary differences between the military and business: Businesses often fail to invest sufficiently in training. It doesn’t matter if they are new to the business or experienced. Your team needs training and equipment. A lack of training might prevent reasonably effective use of the equipment you provide.

Sink or swim isn’t training

Employees are sometimes expected prove their worth via “sink or swim”. They’re expected to get started and become effective and valuable on their own. Failing to do so is “sinking”, and may result in the loss of that person’s job. When the employee is new, and the skill require is sales, sink or swim is usually little more than setting up the employee for failure.

I’ve seen this touted as a means of “separating the men from the boys“, so to speak. The euphemism is about identifying who is ready and able to produce results, but the reality is more nuanced than that. When you put an untrained or poorly trained sales employee on the floor, on the lot, or wherever they work with prospective customers, never forget this: They’re dealing with prospects.

At your car lot or furniture store, you know the business. If 100 people walk in on a Saturday, you can probably tell me within a small margin of error how many are “just looking” and how many are ready to buy. Likewise, you probably can tell me how many of that 100 you’ll likely sell that day. How many of those prospects are you willing to give to someone else because an untrained salesperson loses them? First impressions are everything. If your team is ineffective when the prospect makes that first visit to the showroom, lot or office, you probably know the likelihood that they will return.

Sink or swim undermines a new (or inexperienced) employee’s confidence, which will certainly be reflected in their performance and interaction with every prospect and client. Worse yet, your prospect may leave and never return because they had an ineffective, unproductive experience with someone who simply wasn’t trained well enough to provide for their needs.

Think of the most valuable customer you have. The one who buys furniture every 10 years for their 50 employee office. Or the one with a fleet of pickups for their on-site service people. How would you feel if you found out your new salesperson was sinking when they met the person who would have been your next “most valuable customer”?

Training isn’t fluff. You can tie real dollars to it.

Got the basics?

They’re called “The basics” because everyone should know them. Don’t assume everyone knows them. Train the basics. Vince Lombardi started a championship run by saying “This is a football” to a roomful of experienced pro football players. Take nothing for granted.

As I visit businesses with the intent of making a purchase, I routinely encounter salespeople who exhibit behavior that leaves the impression that they are untrained, or perhaps under-trained. Some are young and perhaps inexperienced, yet some are not as young and not as inexperienced.

Commissioned salespeople walk around without business cards, don’t know their product as well as the prospect, don’t attend to new arrivals “in the sales arena”, etc. At some level, these problems are the salesperson’s responsibility, yet new and under-trained salespeople don’t often realize they are under-trained. They can lose a great prospect who “appears indecisive”, but in reality is annoyed. Ultimately, these issues are on management. Management decides who gets trained, when, and for what skills.

Good salespeople deliver value. I visited a Michael’s Saturday to get a frame re-glassed. The employee in framing told me exactly what would happen, when it would happen, what else I could expect, and the guaranteed service window. This was not a big ticket purchase – yet this person was obviously well trained in what to communicate to me. I’ll go back because that guy made a routine purchase memorable. Isn’t that what you want?

Photo by Jay Phagan