I consistently meet business owners who are about to retire, considering retirement, just retired, or are somewhere between those places. I suspect this happens because I’m on the north side of 50. No matter the reason for these encounters, I wish retiring business owners planned a bit more for the run up to retirement. They tend to have the personal side of things handled. On the business side, my experience is that the typical retiring business owner plans to either close the business down, pass it to family, or find a buyer when they decide it’s retirement time. In some cases, there isn’t a lot of advance thought into the approach to this possibly massive change in the business.
You might be thinking that you don’t necessarily care about likely changes that can occur after the sale – no matter their nature. Thing is, buyers do care. Buyers write a check or get a loan for a presumably large sum of money. Getting a good return on that investment is always on their mind.
Employees also care about the changes that can come with a buyout. Things that create concerns among new owners are staff morale, the staff’s surprise to find that there’s a new owner, the staff’s concerns about the viability of the business, etc. “Why’d they sell it?” “Are we going to lose our jobs?” “What about the redundant positions between the two companies?” “Will there be staff cuts?” As a retiring business owner, your mind is elsewhere. This may seem like it isn’t worth worrying about. Even so, these concerns are quite normal. Think back to the days when you were an employee.
Employees and changes
Employees always have concerns when a business changes hands. It’s not hard to find stories broken promises made when a large business is bought by a new owner or merged with another. Everything is champagne & roses at the press conference in an effort to keep everyone calm & avoid disrupting the business. Employees aren’t dumb. They’ve seen friends & family deal with these situations. They’ll be understandably concerned that they’re in for the same. If you don’t have experience with this, ask around. I doubt it’ll be hard to find someone who’s had a bad experience with this. Anyone from Columbia Falls can explain it.
Morale is always a concern. New owners bring a new culture to the business. The change may or may not be positive. If your staff doesn’t have to worry about that once the sale is announced, they’ll be less distracted & concerned. They’re less likely to be involved in gossip about what might / might not happen with the “mysterious” new owner. This may seem silly to worry about, but people work for you for a reason & money isn’t all of it.
If you’re nearing retirement age, your team has already wondered what you’re doing with the business at retirement. They just haven’t asked you. You might think it’s none of their business, but they often ARE your business.
Before finding a buyer
Finding a buyer sometimes happens quickly. For some, it can take years, which can be excruciating to a wanna-be retiring business owner. There are so many dependencies. Sometimes it comes down to luck. Someone happens to know someone who is ready to buy and things simply happen to match up.
Make sure your business is truly ready to be sold. That means it’s ready to buy, take over, and run. Processes are documented. Job descriptions not only exist, but they’re up to date. Accounting is clean and tightened up. Marketing pipelines are reasonably consistent. Sales conversion is predictable. Supply lines and vendor relationships are solid.
Make sure there are as few “bodies” as possible. When I say “bodies”, I mean “bad things I’m going to find if I dig enough”. You might have heard this phrased as “I’ve been here long enough to know where all the bodies are buried.” It’s a perhaps roughly toned way of saying that you know the good & the bad of a business. The strengths, sure. But also the weaknesses that few know, much less talk about.
The fewer bodies that exist at “Hey, we’re for sale” time, the better. Most prospects won’t see them. The truly interested? They’re exactly the ones who will dig deep enough to find them – the last ones you want to give a reason to walk away.
I recently took a short business trip to Southern California. I conveniently missed out on the single digit and sub-zero temperatures and harsh winds that chilly Montana week. As if winter was following me, my hosts found ice on their lawn furniture one morning during my visit. While there, my host served a really nice Cabernet Sauvignon. When I got home, I called my local wine specialist to see if they could get it – it was that good. When the salesperson answered, I asked if they carried the particular winery and vintage of the Cab. They replied, “We don’t have that one, but we have plenty of other cabs.” I then said, “I understand, but right now, I’m looking for this specific one…” – and before I could finish my sentence to ask if they could custom order it – they hung up.
While I appreciated the “we have plenty of other cabs” portion of the salesperson’s response, it’s a weak effort to fulfill the role of a salesperson: Help customers meet their goals / needs and if your goods / services fit those needs – sell them. If your products / services don’t fit their needs, think long term: Send them in the right direction so they still get some value from your employer. You might think that when Macy’s Santa in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” sends customers to another store it’s simply sappy old movie scripting. Perhaps it is, yet it’s also exactly what’s customers want and appreciate.
Customers value when your experts share their expertise to help them solve a problem. It’s exactly why Ace Hardware has (and promotes) the presence of “helpful hardware” people in their stores. When we enter a wine store, we expect the employees to know more about their wine (if not most wine) than we do. If you’re a local restaurant’s sommelier that won’t be true, but most of us aren’t.
Why do we enter a particular type of business? We’re fond of the product / service. We’ve gained more expertise than most over time & enjoy sharing it. People come to experts because they don’t have the time and perhaps funds) to become one – or they need expert advice soon. We have a problem to solve or a need to fulfill. Most of us are happy to exchange payment for that expertise or purchase advice. That’s why I called the wine store.
The problem with the wine store call was the answer I didn’t receive, not the answer I received. I wasn’t asked if they could try to order it for me. They didn’t offer to check with their distributor and get back with me. They didn’t even finish the obvious part of “we have plenty of other cabs” with “such as this, this and this.” I called them because the store doesn’t have stock on their website (with or without pricing). Sidebar: At first, I thought it might be illegal to list wines on your website in MT, given our love/hate relationship with our sometimes inane alcoholic beverage laws. Nope. I eventually managed to find a Montana wine store who listed specific in-stock wines on their website.
Wanted: A well-trained salesperson.
These days, the difference between a great salesperson and a good one doesn’t really matter in most situations – including this one. It’s tough to hire great salespeople because they can work anywhere. In some environments, they’ll make more than the CEO / owner. At a retail store, a passable salesperson is one who knows the product. A good one knows the products (maybe loves the products too) and makes an effort to help the customer solve the problem that brought them to your store. This doesn’t happen simply by having people fill out a W-4.
It takes training. Not one day. Not a sheet of paper with a checklist, though that can serve as a cheat sheet in the early going. Hire people who like the game you’re playing, and like the people you’re playing it with. Make them more valuable to you by training them to be better salespeople of what you sell. They should know the goods and services better than most customers. They should know why people should choose this over that. Sure, they might move on someday. In the meantime, an untrained or under-trained salesperson reflects on you and your store, not on them. You know what breeds loyalty in your customers? Knowing that there will always be a considerate well-trained expert in your store.
We joke, perhaps uncomfortably, that some people “don’t play well with others“. Others are considered average at being team players. Finally, there are the folks who seem to mesh with any group. The best of them thrive at team dynamics and seem to improve the team, rather than simply becoming a part of the team.
While this is obvious, we often hurry to hire someone. Every time you get in a big hurry to “get that hire done”, there’s a pretty good chance that you & your team will pay for your impatience. If you’re in a hurry for a critical position, look internally for a solid team player who can grow into the open role. Showing that people with these skills get good opportunities sends a message to both the person getting the role and their peers. The upside is that you get an existing team member with known skills into a (presumably) more important position. The role they leave open is presumably a less important role, or perhaps a role that’s easier to fill.
What do team players look like?
It’s easy to say “hire team players”. Getting consistently good at finding them from a pool of candidates is another story. The real work is in identifying them during your interview process. During your interviews, everyone has their persona “all shined up”. Be sure to dig deeper and find signals that indicate what they’re really like when the shine wears off. What does a team player look like? How do you get them to reveal their true selves and reveal what they aren’t?
Much is revealed through conversation. So what do you do? Start by asking people about teams they’ve been on. What do they think makes a good team member? Why? Why are those things good indicators? How does the team benefit from those characteristics? Why do you think that’s important? Channel your inner four year old: “Why? Why? Why?”
Knowing what a candidate values in a team member is good, but it’s critical to know why they value them. Their answers reveal their maturity as a team member & team leader.
Do you know your team’s “human whisperers”. If you don’t – ask around. Your team knows who can read people well. They might not be the senior managers who normally interview people. Involve them anyway. They’re the ones who can read what others cannot. They’ll often pull stories out of a candidate that they’d never typically share – both good & bad. They might be less assertive than your “typical” interviewer, but don’t cut them out of the process. You need to know how a candidate communicates with people who aren’t hard charging extroverted managers. These “shy” or “quiet” folks are often very good at assessing what’s behind someone’s “interview face”. Let them meet the candidate off-site for lunch or coffee at a place that has table service so you can see how they treat wait staff.
What about those who aren’t team players?
Regarding the folks who “don’t play well with others”, you have two choices. Give them a chance to change, with milestones and a timeline, or help them find their next career home. Some people are convinced that they can’t work for someone else and that the only way for them to be happy & thrive is to work alone. Only a hermit lives & works alone. Even the most fiercely independent loner will eventually discover that, along with customers and vendors, they must work together as a team – even if they otherwise work alone.
The person who refuses to learn how to become a team player simply has to go. You aren’t doing someone a favor by keeping them around when they are unhappy and/or don’t fit well with your team. These changes feel difficult, if not horrible, but not as bad as things will be if you do nothing. Making these changes through training and/or departures is what your team needs and deserves. It’s also better for the person who isn’t a team player and doesn’t show interest in becoming one. They deserve a chance to get it together, or find a place where they do fit. Some take to training / mentoring and transform themselves. Some don’t. Sometimes a change helps them figure out the sort of team they need, or that they need to make some changes to become the sort of person a team benefits from.
This past weekend, my wife & I shared a cold one at a local brewery while discussing the shutdown. Pundits and others wave off the shutdown’s impact as “a small percentage of the Federal workforce”, as if it’s trivial. Trouble is, the headcount of furloughed Federal employees creates a butterfly effect that ripples outward to almost every sector of U.S. business.
Shutdown data & families
800,000 Federal employees are currently going without pay. Slightly fewer than half are furloughed – meaning they aren’t allowed to work. More than half are “essential workers” – required to work during a shutdown. Those working will receive back pay once the shutdown ends, but furloughed employees have no “guarantee” of receiving back pay.
The shutdown affects about 3.2 million employees & family members. My non-scientific extrapolation assumes four members per Federal employee household. There’s income flowing into those households if they have two employed people if one isn’t a Federal employee… maybe. Perhaps the two jobs depend on access to childcare. If one is unpaid, can they still afford childcare? If one employee is “essential”, both still have to work. Result: childcare is necessary. It’s not uncommon for both family wage earners to be Federal employees. I know a number of couples who both work for the USFS or Park Service, having met at work when they were single.
Federal employee families have mortgages, eat in restaurants & go to bars. They get oil changes, rent movies & purchase medical care. These families own businesses (like a favorite local brewery), buy raw materials, & employ people. They buy gas, clothes, donuts, firewood, cleaning services, plumbing / electrical repairs, groceries, etc.
This economic activity creates revenue for all local businesses. If you run a restaurant, bar, or other business near a Federal building – it’s likely that a lot of your business comes from Federal employees. TSA folks get a coffee/meal at an airport business. I suspect that activity will shrink at every U.S. airport.
Tax refunds often pay for vacations, bills, & down payments on large purchases. Loaning the Feds money at zero interest may seem unwise, but the economic impact is undeniable. The IRS does not pay refunds during shutdowns.
The now-closed IRS income verification service will eventually impact home purchase closings. Mortgage approvals use the service for income verification. Home purchases affect local banks, real estate agents, closing firms, home inspectors, and home repair contractors, among others.
Local breweries that can / bottle beer are stuck in line waiting to release new beers. The Federal agency that processes over 16,600 beer label applications per month is closed. Someone sells them hops, malt, yeast, bottles, cans, labels, & graphic arts. Someone manufactures & delivers them. Some puts that income into investments, savings, tuition, a home, etc.
Closed or limited Federal lands access can more directly affect local businesses. In West Yellowstone, Montana Public Radio reported that Xanterra and 13 other local businesses managed to arrange a temporary deal to pay the park to plow the roads & groom snowmobile trails in Yellowstone. While $7500 a day is expensive, the alternative is a lot of lost revenue & people out of work during winter peak season. There aren’t a lot of open jobs in West Yellowstone, so even one business laying off its entire staff could create a cascading nightmare for a small town and its families. A snowcoach business owner in the area mentioned that the deal keeps his 14 employees working. Businesses in the Mammoth, Cooke City and West Yellowstone areas are likely thrilled about the temporary deal.
That option isn’t available everywhere.
Butterflies & ripples are different
In a pond, ripples get smaller in height as they expand their reach toward the shore. When they reach the water’s edge, they might barely be noticeable. The butterfly effect works in reverse. Each wave is bigger and interactions create more waves.
As each of these economic impacts ripples outward, it affects more and more people & businesses. At first, the impact is small. Over time, these small impacts accumulate and start to push family & business finances over the edge. Not just those of Federal families, but everywhere. Want to help out? Buy local.
This highly scientific diagram is an incomplete and highly simplified representation of a part of this discussion. Note that it doesn’t include every Federal agency, nor does it include cash flow lines between families who own local businesses to other local businesses.
As the end of the year approaches, it’s a natural time to look back over the past year’s work. Did you make progress? Was the year a success? The source of our motivation has a big impact on how we perceive the year’s work. Did I achieve a financial milestone? Will I get the leadership position I want? Did we reach our sales goals? These are external motivations. Internal motivations may also drive us – such as a need to learn, achieve, better yourself, make fewer mistakes, etc. Neither driving force is the wrong one. Personally, I think a mix of the two serves us well. As we walk the trail through our careers and personal lives, the source and makeup of what motivates us often changes. About 10 years ago, a mentor‘s comment completely changed how I relate to the things I achieve.
The gap on the way to ideal
When we look at our goals or ToDo list, 100% “perfect” completion of every single one on time and on budget is the ideal “destination”. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s rarely realistic. It’s also rarely necessary – at least on the first completion.
“First completion“? Yes, exactly. Few of us knock off a project and find that it’s perfect and never needs another polish, tweak, or modification. Even if the only customer is you, it’s better to complete the job, gather feedback and make another pass to improve your work.
The trouble with 100% completion is we rarely, if ever, achieve it. If 100% completion of your goals is consistently achieved on time and on budget, it often means the goals were watered down. We might extend a timeline, ignore some portion of the budget or loosen quality standards. Doesn’t matter which one.
Looking back at the Apollo project, NASA was charged with getting men safely to the moon and back by the end of the decade. I remember watching the first steps broadcast on a grainy black and white TV at my grandparents’ farm. That was a late night for a young kid in 1969. Yet Apollo wasn’t 100%. An Apollo I launch rehearsal cost the lives of three astronauts. Apollo 13 almost did the same while traveling between Earth and the Moon. NASA achieved the audacious goal Kennedy laid before them, despite not achieving perfect execution.
The gap between perfect execution and your actual execution is quite often significant. Having the right perspective is critical.
Perspective and the gap
When we look at the ideal outcome, we’re almost certain to come away disappointed. We expect perfection. You won’t be happy or satisfied with your efforts when you assess where you are against where you expected to be when everything went perfectly. That space will be filled with regrets about incomplete tasks, tasks that weren’t started, things that didn’t go as planned, etc.
The comment from my mentor paraphrases like this: If you look forward to the difference between what you did and the ideal outcome, there will always be a gap. That gap will always bother you – and it destroys the ambition in some. However, if you look back from where you are to where you started, you’ll find great satisfaction and motivation to charge forward when seeing how far you’ve progressed.
This change in perspective completely changed how I felt about the incomplete / untouched items taunting me from their comfortable home on my Trello board. Strive for 100%. Celebrate your progress, however imperfect. Use your progress as motivation. Keep improving.
When a team’s original goal appears to be within reach, managers often trot out “stretch goals”. Is this done to create a failure that can be held over a team? Stretch goals usually create morale failure from significant progress. Motivation is rarely the outcome. Managers should focus on the 90% your team achieved, rather than the 10% that didn’t get done. It seems natural to do this when you’re a software guy – since we often focus on what’s broken. As a leader, it seems like a great way to repeatedly chip away at the morale of your team by never letting them celebrate or acknowledge accomplishments. The time to focus on the 10% will come soon enough.
Not managing people (even if you have managers) is a common operations problem. How would you feel if you were hired and months later fired or disciplined with little feedback? Whether you deserved it or not (sometimes, the fired do deserve it) – most people would like to know what they did wrong.
In a good company, there’s a process for work quality feedback. A good manager would make sure you had the opportunity to correct your faults / failures before it got to the point of getting you fired. In the worst environments, it comes out of the blue, even if you think you’re paying attention. Imagine how you’d feel if you were never told what expectations were or what measurements would be used to assess the quality of your work? Not only is this unfair to the fired / disciplined employee, your company pays the price too.
Checkboxes aren’t enough
When you hire someone, the work starts when they show up. At many companies, the work of hiring seems to end once the offer is made. The employee shows up, is pointed at a desk, given a pile of work to do, and is expected to fill “hit the ground running” expectations. Their resume had all the checkboxes filled for this role. Shouldn’t they be able to show up and just git-r-dun?
Sometimes people figure it out, sometimes they don’t. At some companies, “I’m used to doing this, this and that – and doing it like this” will get the answers you need to produce work the way the company needs it. At others, it can signal that you aren’t the right fit. You know, because every company does everything the same way, right?
In some cases, the experience you thought you were hiring is different, even if it looks the same on paper. When that happens, what’s next? It might have taken four to six months to figure this out. Perhaps your company’s mentoring is weak, or non-existent. Maybe you don’t have the right work measurement / evaluation tools in place to detect that poor work, the wrong work, or “the right work someone else’s way” is being done.
Employees need more than regular feedback. We touched on that a little bit last week. Feedback, mentoring, training (including “this is how we do a-b-c here“) is all part of employee curation.
What is employee curation?
Visual art is made “better” by the right lighting, frame, etc. Curation puts the content in its best light, providing the consumer with an experience that’s richer than “Here it is.” Your people and their careers need the same sort of consideration.
Back when you were an employee, you may recall that people showed up & figured it out – even if that isn’t what really happened. You may not remember evaluations, training or mentoring you received (or maybe you didn’t get any). As a result, you might expect people to “just figure it out”. That’s great, until they figure out the wrong things, the wrong way, etc.
I don’t recall too many reviews, but I sure remember when companies made sure I had a mentor. At one company in particular, I think they intentionally skipped performance reviews with managers – but in a positive way. They used mentoring & small teams with hands-on leadership to set the example, train, mentor & model what they wanted. Yes, I’m talking about you, Randall and Kim.
Employee curation includes working with someone to help them grow career-wise, both for them & the company. When you need to fill critical roles with people who already work for you, they should be ready. The last thing most companies need these days is someone with 20 years of experience – and all 20 are from 1998.
Guesswork is bad
Even experienced people in senior roles need to know your expectations. Why make them guess? Senior people need to know what their boundaries are – and when to cross them. They need to know how you make decisions so that you know that they know what’s important to you when you delegate things to them.
In junior roles, your mentors & managers will spend more time on how-to-do vs. what-to-do. That will change over time.
Without explicit, detailed duties, expectations and specifics about “this is how you know you’re doing your job well”, guessing is what they’ll do. This may seem OK for a entry or junior level person learning your business (it isn’t). It’s a terrible choice for a new SVP. Be crystal clear about your expectations with everyone. You benefit as much as anyone when your entire team is doing what you hired them for.
A good bit of what we discuss here relates to day-to-day operations. While a lot of operations probably seems simple and obvious, it’s the number one issue I see in companies. I suspect you’ve experienced, owned or worked at a company whose operations are a disorganized mess. Common problems shouldn’t be common at all, right? Let’s see if we can chip away at a few of these and get your operations polished up.
Somewhere in your company, there’s someone who is “under performing”. Not doing their job, not doing it well, It might be that they’re not doing the work in what their peers would consider a normal amount of time. IE: They’re slow. Slow can be OK for some work, but sometimes it isn’t.
As managers / leaders, this is your responsibility. The cause doesn’t matter. If they aren’t doing their job, it’s because their direct manager isn’t finding out why, attempting to fix it and circling back to hold them accountable. Is their direct manager isn’t doing those things? Ultimately, that manager’s performance is your responsibility. Does the under performer work directly for you? If you aren’t finding out why this is happening and you aren’t holding them accountable, it’s your responsibility. While this may seem like a difficult source of hand-wringing and drama, it doesn’t have to be.
Sometimes, an employee doesn’t know what is expected of them. Not kidding. You might find this surprising, but a list of duties, deliverables and responsibilities is useful to an employee. Nothing says “This is what you are responsible for. I will be looking these things when I assess the quality of your work.” better than a list.
Maybe they need training. When you discuss that list of responsibilities with the employee, make sure they are confident that they can achieve those things and have the right skills to make them happen. If they can’t, find training for them.
Training didn’t help. Nothing did.
If training doesn’t improve their performance, a new role might. They might hate some aspect of their work – work that someone else might love to do. Guess who’ll do it better?
Find them a new role that fits who they are, what they can do, what you need, etc. If you can’t do any of that, help them find a role somewhere else. Few “bad hires” are bad people that you’d never recommend to someone else, but they do exist. It takes too long to find and hire a good candidate to simply discard them because you put them in the wrong role, or didn’t train them well.
EVERYONE else in the department (probably in the company), already knows this person needs a new role, more training, or a different job at a different place. They know you aren’t doing anything about it and they’re not happy about that. They know it affects the security of their job, among other things. They’re right to be disappointed.
Disasters in advance
We’ve all seen these. A big project is coming. There are obvious bumps in the road. No one says a word because predicting disaster is “not being a team player” or similar. To a point, that’s correct. Predicting disaster is of no value, but preventing them is huge.
There’s a better way. Ask everyone: “What could go wrong? What could cause this project to fail?” Make it clear that it’s a positive thing to produce this list, as you want to avoid the “team player” baggage. Discuss this for each step of the planning, creation, deployment, and ongoing (if any) operational stages.
Once you have that list, discuss each one. Not only will you be better prepared (and perhaps plug a hole), but you may end up figuring out an issue no one saw when the conversation started. You’ll also help everyone think about hardening their part of the project, no matter what that means. You may find that items on the “What could go wrong?” list end up as a standard task in that kind of project. Would your company benefit if everyone was thinking about these things earlier in the project timeline?
You may get some responses that make no sense, or that seem silly. Don’t let the crowd shout them down. Imagine that delivering a product is critical to your process and someone suggests that a possible fail point is “MegaSuperBigCo can’t deliver our packages“. Something like this might seem a waste of time, but give them their due. Look back far enough and you’ll find instances where shippers or customs people went on strike. When that happens, packages sit in limbo for weeks or months. If your shipping is international, it can get complex in a hurry.
Don’t ignore the smallest items on the “What could go wrong?” list. History has proven that the tiniest thing can create a small failure that cascades to a massive one. We don’t always know which tiny thing will disrupt operations, but we can review each one, make note of what prevents that item from causing problems and move on. If it isn’t handled, the affected team should be expected to take care of it and report back when it’s been handled.
Follow through. Few do.
Have you ever noticed that you get a bunch of work done just before leaving on vacation? Obvious hint: Deadline. Or that your “do this before leaving on vacation” list is essential to making sure that you pack your swimsuit, turn off the stove, and take the dog to the kennel? Obvious hint: Checklist.
Follow through works the same way. You have to be careful that it doesn’t become micro-management, which no one appreciates.
If someone knows they’re expected to provide a status report every Thursday afternoon, they’re more likely to make better progress on the work involved. Work is a funny thing, it expands to fill the container provided. As Stephen Covey made famous with his four quadrants, it’s easy for urgent and unimportant work to fill the day and displace important work.
It isn’t that this work shouldn’t be done, it’s simply that it isn’t as important as a team has agreed to previously. Otherwise, why would you be expected to provide a project status report next Thursday?
What’s even better than a status report that you ask someone to provide? The status report they provide without being asked.
When you provide a project update to your manager / leader / owner without being asked, you make it clear that you know that work is important AND that you know it’s important that the manager / leader / owner knows how things are progressing. Most managers / leaders / owners don’t want to nag – they simply have to because no one is volunteering the information. Result: They don’t know the status of the operations they’re trying to manage.
Unknowns make people nervous, especially as deadlines approach. Make sure your team understands that and that you appreciate follow ups so that you can do the work they expect of you.
Post-mortem your disasters
One of the best times to prevent something from happening again is by taking some notes while it’s happening. An in-disaster post-mortem, for lack of a better term.
Oh, I know. You’re too busy wrestling the fire hoses to stop and take a note for 30 seconds. Really though, you’re not.
If this bad thing happens regularly, put a recurring reminder in your calendar for a few days / weeks / months before the event. A simple reminder to deal with that one little thing that defuses a minor disaster is pretty valuable. Example: Before a trade show or big marketing push, contact your credit card company (merchant card processor) and alert them that you might be processing (much?) higher volume than usual. A five minute call is much less hassle than having your merchant account temporarily disabled in the middle of the business day.
Perry Marshall once mentioned a question his company uses – and I love it: “What system, if fixed or implemented, would have prevented this problem in the first place?” Important for leaders: Don’t ask this question after stating your answer to the question. If you do, you’ll likely miss out on some good ideas that you probably didn’t have. Let someone else get this win – one of them is likely to have the same idea. Listening to the discussion will be far more valuable than showing how smart you are.
What a post-mortem isn’t: A process for assigning blame. Blame has zero ROI, at best. Improvement has a massive ROI, particularly when it prevents future disasters, even minor ones. We can’t always see the future well enough to avoid disaster, but we can convert them into a positive by learning from them. Make disaster avoidance part of your creation, operations, deployment process.
Seems that everyone has a book in them. How many of these books actually escape the mind of their author? I’ve had several percolating in different stages for years. Outline. Concept. Key points. I wrote a very rough draft (isn’t that what drafts are?) years ago – for one of them. I need to get back to them, but other things are (or seem) more important. The same goes for that project you need to get done. Or that new product you want to develop. Maybe even that new company you’ve considered starting. There’s a key to all of this: finish the task. Simple, right?
Start, then finish. Then start another something. You could get tangled up in “finish the already started stuff first“. Maybe, but that might ignore the priorities you’ve already been ignoring. Decide what’s important. Do that. If you happen to wander back into some unfinished task that’s become important, great. If you don’t, and that project languishes for years – it probably wasn’t important anyway.
We prioritize what we can finish
Prioritization is a lot of this. Trouble is, prioritization is tainted by ego and courage and all those touchy-feely things we claim to be irrelevant. We start things we know we can finish by the end of the day, week, or month. We don’t like to fail. Leaving things unfinished feels like failure, even though it isn’t.
Not all work fits conveniently into a day, week or month. We know this. Still, we use that to prioritize work. If there’s no chance of finishing a task by Friday EOD, it’s likely that task will be put off. It’s easy to skip that task in lieu of one we can finish. It’s a built-in confidence builder that our brain uses to “protect” us.
The irony is that this “protection” system is exactly what causes us to fail at important things.
Remember that Federal law that says you have to have tasks completely finished by the end of this week? Neither do I.
Procrastination as leverage
In the last few months I’ve incorporated procrastination into how I schedule tasks. It’s painfully easy, and the rewards are addictive.
Here’s how it works: When you schedule your tomorrow or next week, identify at least one thing you’ve been putting off. Make sure it’s part of your agenda for the day / week. It doesn’t matter why you’re procrastinating on the chosen task. Just choose one. Pick an easy one, if you wish. Make that thing happen. Repeat. Maybe add two of those items next week. Do what works.
You might be thinking “I’m not procrastinating on anything.” Uh, yeah. Sure.
Stop anyone on the street and ask them “What are you putting off that you know you should get done?” and they’ll have an answer instantly. They don’t have to think about it, or look at their phone, or pull out their planner. They know.
So do you. Really.
If the “lizard brain” in your amygdala is hiding these things from you, ask a peer, friend or significant other. They’re bound to have a suggestion.
You may not be able to schedule your entire day / week like this. That’s OK. You decide how much time you can allocate to those procrastinated items. The key is to keep making progress. Finish them. Finish another. Repeat.
Our brains love to finish things. Have you ever put an item on a checklist simply so you could check it off? While it seems silly, checking off completed tasks is a cheap way to release dopamine. Finishing stuff “takes weight off our shoulders”. Mental weight. Cognitive load. “Stressed out” or overwhelmed. Call it whatever you like – it’s there.
Ever been on a diet? There’s a constant food-related cognitive load on your mind. Do you encounter more food-related ads when you’re on a diet than when you aren’t? Probably not, but it feels like they’re everywhere.
Cognitive load is a weight your mind bears every moment. Sometimes you notice it, sometimes you don’t – but it’s always there. A five pound bag of flour doesn’t seem heavy unless you already have two armloads of heavy groceries.
Unfinished, procrastinated tasks have the same effect as that bag of flour. Finish something today. Check that box.
Politics and work – do they mix well? As political communication seems to approach something resembling “say nothing or go psycho“, politics can become tougher at work. I love intelligent conversations with people I don’t (and do) agree with. But finger poking, red-faced, screaming rants? I’m gone. I’d rather watch hot dogs being made.
That politics and work don’t mix well does not mean that the mix is unavoidable or unmanageable. Employees whose politics are a mix of “us and them and them” can get along & be productive as a team. That doesn’t mean the company isn’t going to have to deal with conflicts. Avoiding these problems requires some care when hiring, and that still won’t guarantee you’ll avoid problems related to political differences between employees.
The mission is rarely politics
You may prefer to hire people who are very serious about their political views, particularly if they match your views. That’s OK. No matter where your team members align themselves politically, they need to understand what really aligns them as employees. There’s a single thing to align with when they’re at work and/or when representing your business. That they’re “invested in delivering upon the mission of their employer in the service of the employer’s customers.”
Every business has a culture, whether it’s intentional or not. If you hire people who are incapable or unwilling to adopt that culture, they probably won’t be around long. How politics is handled in the work environment is a part of a company’s culture. Part of delivering upon the employer’s mission is taking care of their customers in a way that is defined by the employer. Some employers are better at defining this than others. All companies define this by example & through their culture, if not via training.
Leading by example
You’ve probably heard about people being fired because of public actions / statements. Sometimes these are political in nature, sometimes the person is simply being a jerk (or worse). I wrote a few weeks ago about an executive chosen for a job who lost it the next day. Online posts that were incongruent with the role of being a senior leader in that industry were costly.
While everyone has a right to their views, how they are communicated in public may reflect upon their employer. It isn’t always that simple. Our political views tend to define how we work, in whole or in part. They can be at the core of who we are & how we got there. Still, we must lead by example.
What leaders say
Imagine hearing the CEO of a national fast food chain publicly stating “Our food is gross. I can’t believe our employees make it, much less have the gall to serve it. What kind of people are they?” Who at that company would feel motivated by their work after hearing that? If that person was named CEO at a different company, how would the new company’s staff react?
Would you expect that CEO to have your back in a situation where a CEO should have your back? How would you like to be one of that company’s salespeople after hearing that quote? What would your response be when a prospect repeated the quote to you after you finished your highly-polished sales pitch?
How does that situation not become all about that leader?
Losing sight of the mission
Politics creates problems in the workplace when someone has not only chosen a political viewpoint, but defines themselves by it. It ceases to be about issues and candidates. It won’t be about how they should respond based on their experience / training. It could become about how someone with their views should respond to work situations.
When an employee’s actions are no longer about the business or the customer, you have a problem. At that point, you get to decide what’s more important: that employee’s views, or your business. It won’t be easy, particularly if you share their politics.
Ask yourself these questions:
“Do I want the person who did / said / wrote these things to manage the people I’ve put in place to care for my customers and the future of my business?
Do I want them interacting with my customers?
Do I want them representing me and my business in public in this manner?
Whether the answers are yes or no, make sure your people know.
A couple of months ago, I was driving to Banff to meet some friends in a rig we call the Scoutmobile. About an hour into the drive, the engine’s temperature started heading into risky territory. I was in an area where there was very little room to pull over, so I started looking for a safe, roomy place to get off the road. In management-speak, this would be a stretch goal.
While searching for a place to stop, I used common engine overheating delay tactics: turn on the heat, slow down, etc. I had a simmering suspicion that a blown head gasket was coming home to roost. This rig had close to 300K miles on it, so this wasn’t an outlandish possibility. As this suspicion moved toward reality, it was obvious that simple overheating delay tactics wouldn’t help for long. I needed to stop.
Stretch goals and context
Getting to a safe, roomy stopping place became a new and much smaller stretch goal because the context changed. Frankly, making the 400 mile drive to Banff and getting back without mechanical trouble was really the stretch goal. Given the rig’s mileage and concern about the head gasket, I had wondered for months if it would survive the trip.
Once the engine temperature started rising, my decision making context changed. Meeting friends in Banff was off the table. Finding an ideal place to pull over became the stretch goal. Getting off the road was possible, but not quickly. Leaving the road in a nice wide spot so I wouldn’t cause traffic issues became the stretch goal.
As I finally rolled into a safe spot out of traffic, the engine lost the little remaining power it had and locked up. The first time it stranded me in 17 years turned out to be our last drive together. While I made the stretch goal even in the altered context, even that seemingly tiny stretch goal was too much for the situation. That’s the lesson here – attention to changing context is critical.
Stretch goals aren’t the problem
I don’t mean to say that stretch goals are bad. They aren’t, but context is critical. When my trip’s decision making context changed, so did my goals for the day. Looking back, it’s possible that stopping immediately would have prevented the locked up motor. I didn’t want to partially block a lane on a two lane highway. That as my justification to push a little bit further – a stretch goal.
When you decide on stretch goals, be sure you aren’t going to drive your team too long at “redline”. Redline (in automotive terms) is the maximum speed at which an engine and its components are designed to operate without causing damage to the engine.
Making your monthly sales goal in three weeks is a classic time to give your team a stretch goal for the month. Adding requirements to the final days of a project that’s already behind will all but guarantee late delivery. Likewise, shrinking a timeline they’re already likely to miss is a good way to sour a hard-fought win.
Race drivers will repeatedly push a race car’s engine to or a bit beyond redline because that’s when they get the most from their engine. Thing is, they won’t do it for long. Pretty soon, they’ll shift or brake. They know redline is there for a reason and pushing the engine beyond normal operating limits for too long will end badly.
Running at redline
Prolonged running at redline has similar effects on people. Someone can work a couple of 80 to 100 hour weeks under near-term deadline conditions and some will do so willingly if they believe in the goal.
Where this goes bad is when it becomes “normal” to work like this. Do this and some (probably all) aspects of their lives will suffer. They’ll not have (or make) time for family, or taking care of themselves. Eating and exercise habits will suffer. They’ll have less (or no) time for friends, the dog, yard, car, hobbies, etc. Rest will suffer, so their ability to focus, concentrate and show patience will be affected. Burning bridges at home combined with a drop in work quality / output can permanently create morale / attitude problems.
Sometimes limits really are limits. Exceed them too often for too long and you’ll damage engines, people, relationships and before long, your company.