Politics in the workplace

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.

Delegate being right

When you run solo business, you work in a bit of an echo chamber. Every decision is yours. You get used to being right, because the market is the only thing to tell you otherwise. Even wrong might not be all that wrong. Maybe you weren’t as right as you could have been – and perhaps market condition changes created that scenario. When you’re on your own, you’re the best at everything in your company because there isn’t anyone else.

Decisions change after hiring

As soon as you hire someone, that changes.

Presumably your first hire is better than you or smarter than you at *something*, otherwise – why did you hire them? Most founders / owners are generalists, but are very, very good at a few things. Hiring someone worse than you for any role outside of your sweet spot is crazy.

The arrival of a new team member starts the process of discovery. As you learn their true abilities, you can begin to leverage their ideas, opinions, perspectives, and experience. You may delegate some decisions to them, while continuing to make the majority of them. At that point, discussions about decisions tend to take one of two directions:

  • I’ll make the decision and tell you what I’ve decided.
  • Tell me what you’re thinking, how you’d make this decision, and why. I will still make the decision, but I want to hear any insight your background, training and experience tell you. To me, hearing how you arrived at the decision is as important as the decision itself.

I suggest the second angle. For the decisions you begin to delegate, you can see from the second angle the importance of explaining how you’d make them and why. Their thought process may not be identical to yours, but they need to understand your decision making process and what factors you see as important. 

Delegate with intent

Delegating isn’t solely about making decisions. There are many ways to design something, setup a trade show booth, make a sales presentation, etc.  Once you hire someone better than you at a particular task, you should expect that some of your past work will eventually appear less than ideal. 

It’s difficult to delegate the work that you’ve always done. Your staff will do things differently than you, and probably better than you. Does this make you wrong? No. Should it put you on the defensive or embarrass you? Don’t let it. Celebrate it. They’re doing exactly what you hired them to do – relieve you of the work and the cognitive load related to that task. 

You may not realize that you become defensive when “wrong” or when your past work no longer passes muster. Be aware of your reactions to these events. If your team sees you become defensive when proven wrong or when your work is improved upon, people will avoid making those situations happen again. It isn’t worth it to them. They’re likely to agree with everything, or worse, add nothing. They’ll say things like “Nope, I don’t have anything to add”, “I’m good.”, or “That’s fine.

Losing decision / process trust

The pain you create when you’re proven wrong changes people’s input. When being right or better seems more important than good results, you lose their trust. You hired them because they’re skilled, yet you’re uncomfortable when they inevitably show it. 

They’ll change their interaction as they learn when & where you have to be right. They may downplay their opinions & work reveals, despite being better than you at certain work. They may suppress experience / data used to make a point during meetings. This won’t happen because they don’t like their work or want the best for the company, but simply to avoid stirring you up.

Over time, they’ll avoid expressing anything in public that’s counter to your position – even when you need it. They’ll censor themselves in private discussions with you. Eventually, they’ll have no input at all, and because this happens gradually, you may not notice the change. If it gets that far, you’ve probably lost them – particularly when it involves previously motivated, engaged staffer. 

It’s tough adding new people to the mix. Give them some rope. Let them prove they can handle the work you hired them for. The freedom they provide by taking work off your plate provides valuable time you can leverage on the work you’re best at. 

The future of ethics

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

You hired them.

My answer? “You hired them.”

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

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

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

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

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

You didn’t fire them.

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

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

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

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

Hiring and not firing adds up

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

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

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

Reinforced bad behavior creates more instances of bad behavior.

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

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

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

Everyday ethics sends signals

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

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

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

Why role specific training matters

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

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

Why “disturbing”?

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

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

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

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

They reflect what we teach.

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

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

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

What about seasoned staffers?

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

Avoiding the blank sheet

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

Examples to get you started:

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

What ideas / suggestions do you have?

Reflecting on leadership

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

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

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

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

A substantial number have been training roles.

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

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

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

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

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

Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Self-Managing Business

If you get enough email from “gurus” and you see enough Facebook ads, you will find yourself reading discussions about that unicorn of unicorns, the self-managing business. It sounds amazing. “You mean I’ll have the freedom to go skiing, hiking, or fishing and when I return, my business will better than it was when I left?” Yes, they say. If you dig deep enough, they will begrudgingly admit that your business will be no worse than it was when you left. In some cases, that’s normal because the business actually gets more and better work done when you’re gone. But they leave out a lot of detail, or more often, people read far more into the title than is really there.

The four hour work week

Take Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week. Tim’s built an integrated team and systems that allow him to spend his best, most productive four hours of the week working on things he loves to do that no one else in his business can do as well as he can. It’s real work to create systems and train people to work autonomously, or at least close to autonomously. It’s worth it, of course. He shows how to build a business that lets you work from anywhere. Could you turn your bait shop into an absentee business? Sure – if you’re put the time into developing systems and training people.

However, it isn’t just about training people to do the work. That’s the easy part. If you are truly going to disappear, someone will need to make decisions for you. Presumably, you’ll want their decisions to be the same ones you would have made. Otherwise, it becomes more like the business of the people you left behind, not the business of the person taking the three week horsepacking trip. Upon your return, you might not like what you find.

What does self-managing business mean?

To some, it means that all the stuff that can be automated has been automated. A self-managing car might drive itself to the dealer (or your preferred mechanic) if it detected a problem that wasn’t enough that it meant the car couldn’t be driven. It might know when to get gas (etc) – and to go to a station that offers full-service, since it can’t fill itself from a standard pump.

It isn’t simply about automation. Automation simply buys time / speed, and reduces / eliminates human error. While automation is getting better every day, someone has to tell it what you want it to do. The same must be said about your staff. They need to be told HOW you want things to be done, but also, how to decide and prioritize those things. Everything, in fact.

Making decisions is also work. Sometimes it’s the work that makes a difference for the business – and it’s often the kind of work that repeatedly pays off. So how do you replace that?

Being Like Mike

This is the real work of “systematizing” a business. Building & implementing automated systems isn’t nearly enough. You need people who are prepared & ready to make decisions close to as fast as you do, based the same points and considerations you use, and after all that – make the same decision you would have made (mostly).

Until they do that consistently, how can you leave for a month?

Write down a short note about the last five decisions you made. I don’t mean major like “we bought a competitor”. I’m referring to the kind of decisions you make daily or weekly. With list in hand, take your best staffer for a walk. For each decision on the list, put your staffer in the scenario you were in, provide them with whatever info you had, and then ask them to make the decision they thought you would make. Now ask them to tell you how they arrived at that decision. After a few decisions, is the staffer on track?

If they aren’t, think about the training that’s necessary to get them there. Are your managers ready for that? If you left for a week, would they have the data, tools and decision-making process (from yours) to make it for a week without calling, texting, or emailing you?

Start slowly. Train them, give them the autonomy they need, & coach them. When they’re “ready enough”, start leaving them for longer and longer stretches.

Photo by Colynn

What makes your customers safe?

We have attorneys, insurance, OSHA, safety regulations, procedures, safety gear, training, etc to help us protect our business, while keeping our staff members & customers safe. We know that in some markets, someone still might get hurt despite all our preparation, training, safety equipment, etc.

If you run a hotel with a pool, offer zip line rides, take people on boat rides / float trips, lead hikes or offer horseback rides into the backcountry, there are obvious risks, but almost every business has some level of risk like this. Have you wondered how you’d respond if something horrific happen to your customers while they were at your place of business? It’s one of a few worst possible nightmares for a business owner. Could you, much less your business, recover from something like that? Could your staff?

There are (and will continue to be) a lot of what ifs related to the recent duck boat disaster in Branson. It’s difficult to comprehend, much less try to relate to what the victims’ families, the employees and the business owner are going through. While it’s the worst possible time for all involved, the rest of us owe it to ourselves, our team, and our customers to learn from it.

If your business involves activities that could put your employees and/or customers in a scenario where they could get hurt, you should watch the process closely as they talk to the media, address safety issues that are discovered, and change processes while customers are in their care.

Review. Look for clues. Ask for help.

What you’re able to see from the public perspective of this accident will help, but the opportunity to learn won’t stop there. There will likely be additional considerations discussed by your advisors that they will want to share with you. As an example, you’ll want to talk to your attorney, insurance agents, licensing and related safety enforcement agencies, as well as industry groups.

As details come out about what went wrong in Branson, you may find subtle gaps in your tools, gear, processes, inspections, or training. Even if you have 40 years of experience in your business, as the boat tour business does, you can still learn from the lessons and discoveries that come out of this.

Your customers know they’re putting themselves at risk to take part in adventures. They expect your team to be experts. Reviewing your current procedures, training and equipment use is at least as important as making sure that you’ve developed enough of a sales pipeline to have the necessary cash flow to make payroll three months from now.

One more critical tool

There’s more to this than safety equipment and training.

When bad things happen, time has a way of changing. For some people, time stands still, or more commonly, slows down a good bit. For others, it accelerates.

It’s easy to find stories about highly accomplished people (athletes and others) who describe what happens when they get really good. They’ll say the game or activity “slows down”. It means that they are so ready, so fit, so well-trained, and so mentally prepared that the activity feels as if they have plenty of time to do whatever they’re good at. It looks easy when they do it because to them, it is. For the rest of us, the game or activity feels like it keeps getting faster and faster. When we try to keep up at a pace we aren’t used to, we start making mistakes.

Leadership works this way too.

When bad things happen, preparation slows things down. When you’re the owner and 20 people are asking questions at once, preparation, experience, and practice help you keep your bearings, calm everyone, and handle the questions.

You aren’t the only one who needs this preparation. Your ENTIRE team needs leadership training. When everyone else panics (and perhaps rightfully so), they will need leaders to help them find a safe way out. Leave no one out. That kid in produce might be the one who takes charge and guides your customers to safety when the worst happens.

Train your entire team. All of them will need one another to get through it, both during the event, and afterward. You’ll need their leadership most of all. If the worst never happens, you still have a team of leaders. Your customers will notice.

Photo by Symic

When A Storm Comes To Town

Wall Street loves “events”. An event in their context might be a CEO saying something incredibly stupid that affects the stock price, gets the CEO fired, or both. A good example is the Lululemon CEO’s yoga pants comment back in 2013.

If something good happens, they usually see it as a reason to buy, except when odd Wall Street logic prompts them to sell instead. Likewise, they usually use bad news as a legitimate reason to sell.

Outside the context of Wall Street, the repercussions from an event can get a bit more personal. When these things involve (or appear to involve) a local business, people either flock to the place or abandon them as if they have a contagious and permanent disease.

Sometimes things get worse. What’s worse? When mob mentality takes over and a group of people decide your transgressions mean that you deserve to be forced out of business, or worse.

Dealing with the aftermath

No matter what happened, and no matter how at fault you and /or your business may be (including not at fault at all), you have two choices: tell the truth, or say nothing.

Why say nothing? Because your lawyer said so.

Why tell the truth? Because the whole story will eventually come out anyway and no matter how bad it is, lying about it to your customers, prospects, and community is always going to come back to bite you far worse than the truth will.

In these times, you might get the idea that there’s either no such thing as the truth, or that there are multiple truths for different people.

Which truth is that?

Clearly, there will be people who won’t believe you no matter what you say. They don’t care about the truth (certainly not from you, that is), so telling the truth isn’t about them. Remember, they only want to see you shut down, in jail, and / or publicly humiliated, so the real truth has a way of not mattering to most of them.

Even if you were right or not involved, you’ll take some heat. Nothing you say will mute the haters. Ignore them as much as possible, but always defend the facts. Leave the personal stuff alone and don’t make it personal. Make sure your family, friends, and employees stay out of it, particularly on social media.

Of those who eventually discover and recognize that you did nothing wrong (when that’s the case), history has shown that only a small percentage will acknowledge their discovery. The rest seem to be more worried about the fuss they made to their friends, family and others. That’s their ego and /or fear talking.

The truth is for everyone else.

Recovery and Communication

When these things happen, a timely response is essential. Do it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it gets and the more anger you’ll have to defuse. Inaction or procrastination both make it look like you don’t care. You have enough to deal with as it is (right or wrong) without an extended delay that makes you appear not to care about the situation.

If you were wrong or somehow involved, own it, make it right, and take the punch.

If you weren’t wrong or had nothing to do with it, own that too.

What does make it right look like? It looks like what you’d want someone to do when making it right to your grandma.

Who do you tell? A better question might be who don’t you tell. When the news starts to spread (guilty or otherwise), do you want other people telling your story? No. As with marketing, you need to be the one telling it, even if the story is bad news.

If new information becomes available, lead with it. Whether it’s good or bad, you need to take the reins on communication. If you don’t have all the information or even think you don’t, say so. Certainly the story can change in complex situations with confusing timelines and / or a lack of confirmable information.

A lot of this is common sense, but we sometimes need a formula to fall back on when we’re under pressures . These fallbacks are helpful for the same reason we use checklists and documented processes.

Remember, listen to your lawyer. Also remember that I’m not that person.

Quality management’s slow ROI

We talk about numbers, metrics, & dashboards from time to time. One of the more difficult things to measure, much less manage, is quality.

Is there a single measure?

Some might suggest Net Promoter Score as an ideal single measure. NPS ranges from -100 to 100. It represents the willingness of a company’s customers to recommend their products & services to others.

If your business makes / sells cars, what single measure indicates your overall quality? Number of recalls per model year? Number of cars returned under lemon laws? Annual average cost of warranty repairs? Repeat sales?

Quality management is difficult

What makes it so hard to manage & measure quality?

Cost: Quality management systems are expensive, at least they feel that way. If you manufacture things (including software), the investment necessary to measure & report quality can easily approach the cost of producing the product. Finding the ROI is difficult at best, while the price sticks out of your P&L like an ingrown toenail.

Time: Quality control isn’t easy, fast, or simple. Measuring & reporting quality either during or immediately after the manufacturing process is a complex, incrementally-built thing. It takes time to build. If your team’s culture is focused on speed above all else, quality management may not make your “projects to implement” list.

Quarterly expectations: Time-to-return-on-investment compounds the difficulty. Quality control feels like an expensive, plodding animal, making it easy to view as an extravagance rather than an investment.

Accountability: Quality measurement can feel like blame creation, rather than data collection. Accountability must extend beyond the head/hands of the worker to the team’s management, systems, and to the training & tools provided to that worker. Quality work is accountable by design, and rarely happens by accident. It’s resilient, running for days or weeks at a time without stopping. It’s ready for the edge cases that try to inject chaos into your customers’ world. Customers appreciate when the products they buy can take a punch.

Culture: Quality isn’t a job. It’s a value. If your team sees it as an incumbent part of their job, it will change their work, how they work, & how they think about their work. If someone doesn’t see quality as part of their job, they may need training. If training fails, they may fit in better elsewhere. People who value quality don’t want to work with those who don’t value it. Who would you rather lose?

Every job is a quality job

Years ago, a leadership instructor moped into the room after a break & started droning on in monotone. He sounded like he was having the worst day of his life. After a few minutes, he took a break. When he returned, his mood was positive & very happy to be there – despite being in the same room with the same people.

He stopped for a minute & asked if anyone wanted the old, depressing guy to return. No one did. His lesson from that little act was that “Every job is a sales job.” If you’ve ever been “greeted” by a sullen receptionist, the meaning of “every job is a sales job” is obvious.

The point? Every job is also a quality management job.

Like the sullen receptionist, it only takes one person, event or action to make us forget the good work a business has done. Similarly, when one department’s role in quality management fails, it devalues the work of the rest of the company.

Quality management systems help us monitor & correct these things before they cause reputation damage.

Forests, forest fires, and reputation

In a world dominated by short term views, quality management’s slow ROI & difficult to identify returns seem too expensive & time-consuming to invest in. Even for those who invest, a ROI search in their accounting system comes up empty.

As a result, a bad financial period makes it easy to cut what seems like an extravagance that isn’t contributing to the bottom line.

Think twice.

Quality & reputation can be both sturdy & fragile, like a forest. It takes decades to grow a healthy forest. Reputations grow similarly.

Like a random lightning strike, a carelessly discarded cigarette butt, or an abandoned campfire can destroy a decades-old forest in hours, a change in quality that goes undetected can cause reputation damage that takes months or years to recover.

Does your business have months or years of staying power? In a pinch, you can borrow to bridge a short-term cash flow gap.

You can’t borrow reputation.

Your town can fuel the rise of two pizza teams

Last time, I noted that Amazon received no HQ2 (second Amazon global headquarters location) proposals from communities in a number of rural states. At the time, I noted that the decision to pass on that opportunity was a well-considered choice.

More importantly, I asked the following question:

What would the impact be if your community had five new, active payrolls of that size five years from now? “Technology” could be software, wood products, water purification, medical research, etc.

Payrolls “of that size” refers to two pizza teams, ie: a team small enough that you can feed it with two pizzas.

I’d like to talk about what communities can do to encourage the formation of two pizza team. Every community can gain from the benefits these teams produce.

You’re not too rural for pizza

Rural communities can benefit from the kind of jobs HQ2 will bring, without bringing Amazon to town. If your community manages to do what’s necessary to help build only one new 300-400K payroll in town every year or two – the benefits are substantial.

The initial question to address is “What should communities do to create a local culture that encourages the formation of these teams?”

Your town already has an entrepreneurial petri dish, but in most cases, new business creation currently depends on:

1) the bullheaded optimism of entrepreneurs (and sometimes, their access to capital), or

2) Desperate situations demanding that the impacted family do something, anything to create an income.

In both cases, these creations tend to be tied to a short list of highly-motivated (internally or externally) individuals. Some families have always started businesses, so their kids learn to do the same. Others are forced into it. Both groups experience varying levels of success.

We want to create conditions that make your entrepreneurial petri dish a bit warmer and a bit more nutritious, making it easier to grow something in it. A stronger entrepreneurial culture is more likely to hatch a creation that can survive on its own when transplanted into the real world.

While funding is important for some businesses, most two pizza teams start off as knowledge-based businesses that don’t need large capital expenses to get started. Capital needs will likely appear during periods of fast growth.

Fuel for two pizza teams

Two pizza teams need:

  • ideas that serve a hungry market
  • people with the right skills and the spare time to devote to their “side hustle”
  • the confidence to adjust & keep trying when things aren’t going so well

Communities don’t need an inventory of unserved ideas to hand out to wanna-be entrepreneurs. Instead, create conditions that consistently produce ideas. These include Startup Weekends, makerspaces, meetups, & coworking spaces.

Almost any clean, empty warehouse / retail space will do. Dedicated, fancy areas aren’t required. Start with a library or business conference room. Meeting in a clean, safe, empty warehouse or retail space is an inexpensive way to get meeting space while raising awareness of a space looking for its next productive use.

The keys? Create a constructive environment for discussion, formation, & execution of ideas – and get the right mix of people there.

How can community leaders help?

Every community has people with the skills to create a side hustle. What they often lack is experience, confidence, a group to brainstorm with and to ask “Does this make any sense at all?”.

What encourages people to have the confidence to suffer through the rough times? Experience. Mentors. Sounding boards. A community of business owners / side-hustlers who are going through & have gone through that bramble of thorns and roses.

Community leaders can leverage their connections to experienced business owners / managers & local angel groups to get them involved and gain access to meeting space. Like-minded people with the right skills & spare time meet each other at these gatherings. When experienced business owners add their voice, their insight & mentoring builds confidence in those trying to figure it all out.

The confidence part is important. When a small group of people is dedicated to turning an idea into a side hustle & then a payroll, they need the self assurance to weather whatever storms come over the ridge. They need know that it’s OK to pivot (ie: adjust their business and business model to reality) rather than quit.

Every community has a meeting space, experienced business people & folks looking to start a business who need advice & critical mass. Get them together.

Photo by cote