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

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

Listen to clients. They say the darndest things.

I love polarized lenses. Sunlight reflected off snow or water is brutal on my eyes. Polarized prescription shades make it all better. They aren’t inexpensive, yet the payoff in improved vision and eye strain is huge. These special lenses help me see things in a way I can’t otherwise experience. Taken further, consider the special lenses available for folks with color blindness. Many YouTube videos show a thrilled & tearful reaction to wearing these lenses for the first time.

You need special business lenses for the same reason.

A special lens filters out glare, distractions and visual “noise” while making it easier to see what’s not normally apparent. This is why  I repeatedly suggest the use of dashboards. Trends and intermediate figures stick out on a dashboard. They don’t typically become apparent (or appear at all) on an income statement – or they’re buried in other numbers.

One of the best lenses for viewing your business is the lens your clients see through. You might see things that you might not normally value – at least not how your client values them.

New clients vs. long-term clients

One area where it’s easy to miss this data is in the difference between your newest clients and the ones you’ve had forever. I visited a long-term client a while back. When I asked “Where do you the value in what we do for you?”, they mostly talked about how (and why) the relationship started. Eventually, the discussion turned to the feeling that they felt protected and that we had their best interests at heart, even after all these years.

I felt like I wasn’t getting “the dirt”, so I asked what makes our stuff critical to them day-to-day. What affected them more than anything was being on time, every day. Not 15 minutes late. On-time meant six figures of difference in their daily cash flow.

While new clients may have bought your stuff because of the latest, greatest thing you’ve done, not everyone fits that mold. Long-term clients may not need the newest stuff you’ve done because whatever you do inherently has more impact on their business day-in and day-out.

The new stuff we’d done was designed to deal with issues that didn’t exist when we first started working together. Even so, those issues paled in comparison to the impact of not being on time. Anything that can affect a company’s cash flow by six figures each day is pretty important (British understatement). It might allow them to avoid hitting a line of credit that week, or even having to have that line of credit. It might be what allows them to take that “month off” each year that many lines of credit require.

Ask openly

When you listen to clients, you have to be careful what you ask, and how. I don’t know if I would have heard about the daily cash flow impact if I had asked about a particular feature, service or product.

Instead, I simply asked them to tell me how (and why) they felt they benefited from continuing to do business after all this time. You could drive an airport snowplow through the opening I provided. Not only did that allow them to tell me about something super critical, but to do so outside of the product / service context.

Cash flow has nothing to do with what’s sold to them, at least not directly (as I learned). What it clarified was that a slower than normal response from customer service could cost them $100K+ that day. To some clients, that hour isn’t important. Getting a quick response at a certain time of day was huge to these folks. Setting up with a special rapid response service would likely benefit them greatly multiple times per year.

Listen to clients without an agenda

While your clients may not have that kind of time-bound value tied to certain hours of the day, there are things to learn from asking open-ended questions that don’t necessarily point at product / service topics – and then listening intently to what they say.

When you listen to clients openly and without an agenda, the value of what you learn can be huge. Questions intent on confirming what we think we already know serve no one. Instead, ask better questions.

Photo by mattlucht

The Value of Trust

In personal relationships, trust is something we generally have a handle on. We know whether or not to trust a family member or friend (and how much) based on their behavior over time. In a business environment, things may not be that simple. Think about it… If you have employees, do you trust them? If you have people working under contract, do you trust them? If you work for someone else, whether you’re considered an employee, team member, associate, or staff member, do you feel as if the business owner (or your manager) trusts you? Likewise, if you’re an employee or working under contract, do you trust your manager / the business owner?

Brick by brick, we build trust over time, yet it can be lost in an instant. What creates that trust? Your pile of bricks grows as time passes based on your consistency, dependability and/or responsiveness. And what else?

What owners need to trust a team member

What do owners see in team members that provides the faith to trust them? Owners like to know you have their back. They’d like every employee to behave and think like an owner at some level. Note that I said BEHAVE and THINK like an owner.

The best employees think like an owner, even if their responsibility is limited to coffee machines, ice machines, and floors in your building. When you think like an owner, you want the machines to be cleaned and disinfected regularly so no one gets sick, even if they don’t get sick enough to take time off. Clean, puddle-free floors are safer than cluttered floors that occasionally have puddles like the one that your peer slipped and cracked their elbow on.

When you behave like an owner, you don’t walk past that puddle because you aren’t the one in charge of the floors. You mop it up before someone gets hurt.

What team members need to trust a business owner

Some owners work 80 hours a week. When owners think “behaving like an owner” means their employees should also work 80 hours a week, they aren’t really looking for people to behave like an owner.

Owners: What trust doesn’t mean

If you are thinking “I can’t trust my employees because…”

  • they don’t work as hard as I do.
  • they don’t think like an owner.
  • they don’t take ownership of their work.
  • I have to monitor everything they do.

Ask yourself if you worked as hard as the owner did in your last job. Rather than expecting them to be as vested as you (assuming you have everything on the line and everything to gain), consider your last gig as an employee. How’d you feel about it? What’d you like? What’d you dislike? Did you trust the owner? Did the owner train you to think like they did?

If your people don’t take ownership, do you encourage them to take responsibility and own their work? More importantly, do you reward them based on those actions? Do you “over-manage” them? Some might call it micro-management, but over-manage might be more descriptive.

MBWA (management by wandering around) isn’t micro-management. Training isn’t micro-management. Good hiring, middle managers, documented work processes and management systems take the place your innate need to “monitor everything they do”. It’s an adjustment as your company outgrows you – which it should do. Employees expect owners to focus on strategic work that prepares the company for its next challenge(r), not over-managing.

Employees: What trust doesn’t mean

If you are thinking “The owner doesn’t trust us because…”

  • they installed a security system, digital access keypads for some areas, etc.
  • they installed security cameras.
  • they ask us to have a peer confirm bank deposit before we head out the door with the bank bag.
  • they ask us to have a peer double check the shipping list before we close a box going out to our largest commercial customer.

… you aren’t thinking like an owner.

When you complain about these things, it sounds like you aren’t interested in protecting the company’s assets or reducing the company’s risk. The value of double checking deposits or shipments to an important customer is obvious. Mistakes happen. Security systems limit access to assets by those with no business need to access them. Increased risk increases costs. These systems impact insurance costs & provide evidence gathering capability that protects good employees from bad ones.

When a family member threatens their ex who works with you, your spouse or your kid, it’s the owner who worries about whether or not it’s safe to allow people to come to work. Before you doubt that, bear in mind that I’ve lived that situation and had those thoughts. You can’t install security cameras and harden your business overnight. You have to be “a bit more ready” when you can afford to be.

Put yourself in the other person’s place, no matter what your role.

Being prepared for employee turnover

There’s an old saying that you’ve probably heard about employee training. “What if I pay to train these people and they leave?”, the short-sighted one asks. “What if you don’t train them and they stay?”, responds the sage. One of the most expensive activities your business can experience is employee turnover. When employees leave, a piece of the company leaves with them. Their knowledge of work processes, clientele, things they do without thinking due to “muscle memory” and so on. Then there is the act of replacing them.

Hire too fast and you risk getting a culture mismatch, someone with the wrong work habits and/or someone who can’t step into the role and be reasonably productive. Sometimes you might feel “forced” to hire solely based on culture fit, which means you’ll have to give them time to grow into the job. Even when you find an experienced person who can step into the role, the expense is substantial. While working that process, there’s work that isn’t getting done, isn’t getting done as well or as quickly, or it’s getting done by someone who is already doing their fair share. The process of properly finding, vetting and eventually hiring a replacement for a lost team member is expensive when done right. When done wrong, the cost can skyrocket.

Sometimes, a place is so toxic for one reason or another that it is literally a revolving door. A couple of years ago, I visited a logistics warehouse that was losing 100% of their workforce every 30 days. Read that again and consider how a situation like that would impact a business. They weren’t losing the warehouse managers, but they were having to replace the entire staff every 30 days for positions actually doing the “real work” in this warehouse – that is, moving pallets around, driving fork lifts, dealing with the related paperwork and trucks. None of the people there on June 1st were there on May 1st. It was impressive that they managed to keep the place operating at all, particularly without sharply increased injuries. The investment in interviewing, on-boarding and training time had to be unbelievable.

Imagine being in that situation. It’s difficult to process the pain this would cause simply dealing with it one time, much less having to deal with it month after month.

Being realistic

While that warehouse was a real situation, it’s not normal. The turnover you experience is troubling enough. You hate to see it happen, even if you’re happy for the opportunity your quality people found. Even so, they were accomplishing something at your business, leaving you with a hole to fill. Do you really know everything they do? Do your people really realize everything they do? In some roles, it isn’t unusual to find work that gets done intermittently that can be forgotten. What work at your business is undocumented?

Even if someone doesn’t leave, they might get sick for a week. They might have to travel out of the country for two weeks. They might go fishing in the backcountry and spend a week in places with no cell coverage. How will your business survive that week? In my experience, a company can easily take a punch that only affects them for a week. Where you get into trouble is losing someone permanently, or even for a month. A parent gets sick, or someone has to have a knee replacement. If this happened to someone at your place, how would it affect production? Day to day operations? Management? If you had to replace your administrative person (assuming you have only one) for a month, would the replacement be able to step in and find documented processes and a list of all the things that must be done each week of the month?

Now extend that to your highly skilled people. Is their work documented? I know, I know. It seems like busy work… until you lose one of them. Or two. Or three. The timing of these things never seems to be kind even when it isn’t malevolent.

Extend that thought to your key employees.

Finally, there’s you. What doesn’t happen if you disappear for a month? Who makes sure people get paid? Who can sign checks and manage company funds? What else doesn’t happen? You get the idea.

Being prepared for employee turnover isn’t solely about being ready to deal with losing employees. It’s about building resilience for the situations that life brings.

Photo by stu_spivack

Strategic responsibility: Client Care and Feeding

The custody, guardianship & defense of your clients is a strategic responsibility for anyone interested in customer retention. When you fail to provide timely, wise counsel to your clients, it creates risk. An aging example that has a very recent twist is Windows XP. The subject is only an example, as the lesson applies to all businesses.

In 2001, the beta of Windows XP was released. I installed it on my laptop before going to a trade show in Mobile. I walked back into the booth as my sales team finished a demo of our product (a back office management system for studio photographers). The prospect was tech savvy and he had visited our biggest competitor’s booth before stopping to see us. As I arrived at the booth, the sales team had this “we’ve got trouble” look on their faces.

As I arrive, the prospect turns to me and says “I have XP beta on my laptop. When I tried your competitor’s software on my laptop over there (pointing at their booth) and it died an ugly death. Will your software run on XP when it’s released?”

XP’s moment of truth

I turned and said “No”, pausing long enough for him to start to enjoy my answer, then finished my sentence… “The demo you watched is running on XP beta. It doesn’t look like XP because I’ve disabled the XP UI. Since most people haven’t seen it, I didn’t want to distract the sales process with questions about the new UI features.

Fact is, I also hadn’t told the sales team because I wanted unvarnished feedback from them and from prospects.

I’ve always been a bleeding-edger when it comes to a new OS. I don’t install the new system everywhere, but I use them enough to assess a level of trust. In this case, I had been running an XP beta on my laptop for several months. I knew it’d be available between August and October, so when the June beta was publicly available, I hopped on it. I did most of my development and testing on it at the time because I wanted to be ready on XP launch day.

Launch day was strategically important to Windows. Many applications used by my (often bleeding-edge) clients were getting major updates for XP, including Photoshop (remember, the company’s clients were photographers). We had to demonstrate that we had their back by launching an XP-ready version the day XP became available.

That doesn’t mean that I use it 16 years later.

Client advocacy is strategic care and feeding

Back in 2012 or so, Microsoft finally provided a drop dead date for XP. 18 months in advance, the advocacy went in motion. XP was already old news, but many clients still used it. On April 8th 2014, Microsoft said they would stop issuing patches and security fixes for XP, so it was time to move on. The same situation was coming in the summer of 2015 for Windows Server 2003. Both systems were a bit behind in the OS security world and had been left behind by most software developers.

Users feel differently. They’re comfortable. They aren’t fans of things that, to the naked eye, look like change for the sake of change. To this day, you can find XP running ATMs, kiosks, announcement boards, etc. The advocacy to convince people to upgrade from XP had to happen. Some vendors forced their clients to upgrade by refusing to provide installers that worked on XP and Server 2003 (this was the strategy I selected, coupled with almost two years of advocacy).

Some vendors let their clients decide. Last week, many of their clients learned a painful lesson when the “WannaCry?” ransomware disabled (so far) over 230,000 computers in businesses and hospitals world-wide. WannaCry was effective only because the affected systems hadn’t been updated. Did IT-related businesses who have WannaCry victims as clients do enough to motivate them to perform the proper maintenance on their systems? Probably not.

Care and feeding is a strategic responsibility

The custody, guardianship & defense of your clients is a strategic responsibility. You were hired by your clients because of an established, known, and respected level of expertise in some area(s). You know more than your clients on those subjects and they should expect you to be a mentor and advocate for them. Leverage your expertise and strengths to help them protect themselves.
Photo by kyz

Who would you keep when forced to bend?

If you were forced by financial circumstances to (perhaps temporarily) lay off every employee but one, who would you choose to keep? Why would you choose that person? Think about it now, so that you make a considered decision if that unfortunate situation occurs. Your company will benefit from that thought process now, even if that person never leaves.

Support, challenge and grow

You might be thinking “Benefit? Are you nuts? How in the world can I benefit from thinking about who will be the last worker standing?

Easy.

The benefit is that you start thinking about things that help you deal with change, with short term resource deficits (like vacations, travel, etc). And you do it when you are of sound mind and body, not when you are freaking out because you lost your best client, your last line of credit, your best investor/partner, or your most valuable employee.

What are you doing to challenge, support and grow that essential person? What are you doing to challenge, support and grow those who will fill their shoes if they get promoted and no longer perform the critical task that belong to their current role?

The short answer is to document them as noted in the E-Myth. This serves at least three purposes:

  • It prepares you for a time when that person can’t do the work due to sickness, family emergency, travel, etc.
  • It documents a process so that it can be evaluated for delegation.
  • It creates a training asset.

Preparing for these possibilities sends a message that you are building a resilient company. It gives people confidence that the company has their back and that an unfortunate departure, drop in sales or some other negative event isn’t going to kill the company (or put their job at risk) because the company has strategically prepared to take a punch. If you react with behavior(s) rooted in fear, it undermines your team’s confidence and leaves them wondering about the stability of their jobs. They lose focus. Work quality will likely suffer.

Bend but don’t break

The natural opposite of the conversation we’ve had so far MUST be considered: What if this critical person leaves your company? Eventually, it’s likely to happen. People’s needs and wants change. Opportunities pop up – and in many cases, they are opportunities that the person leaving wasn’t even ready for when they started working with your firm. For motivated people who grow their skills and take ownership of things that happen on the job, opportunities “magically” arrive even if they aren’t looking. In fact, opportunities are offered to them regularly because people know them, know what they bring to the table – and most employers want people like that. You probably want people like that.

So one of them might leave. This is likely to happen every few years if your company is a great training ground for people stepping up to the next level, which is a good thing despite how it feels when you lose them. When that happens, what do you do next? Do you have checklists and documentation for the processes those people own every day or every week? Or do you scramble around for a month or more trying to put Humpty back together again?

Deal with this in advance. Talk to the people you’d most hate to lose. What’s their ambition? What is your company doing to feed it? What makes them crazy about the company? How often do those things happen to your most valuable players? How many of the things they do are documented so that someone else can do them when they are on vacation or sick? These people aren’t going to object to this because some of these tasks need to be given to someone else, but they also worry about them when they’re on vacation. They don’t worry because they believe no one else can do their work. They worry because they take ownership. Checklists and process documentation give them some comfort because they’ve put their thinking about the process on paper. Process documentation is more than “Do this step, then do this step.” There needs to be a why, a what to look for, a “get worried and evaluate this if you start to see that“.

How you handle these things is as important as what you’re doing to avoid laying people off.

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

What halftime advice would you give your staff?

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

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

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

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

Looking back to Lombardi

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

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

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

Your team had a great month. Now what?

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

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

Your team had a terrible month. Now what?

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

Call a timeout

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

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

Hire for commitment over ego

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

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

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

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

Which group should you hire from?

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

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

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

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

Making this possible is on you, the owner

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

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

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

Chaos, frenetic activity and burning buildings

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

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

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

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

Chaos management

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

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

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

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

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

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