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.

Driving hard at stretch goals

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. 

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. 

Really bad advice

If you know people who have owned their own business for a long time (or maybe not so long), they’ll have lessons to pass on. What you’ll typically receive from these people is rarely (if ever) going to be bad advice. I suspect most of these folks will be happy to suggest things you shouldn’t do, as well as things they recommend doing.

Here’s the secret process to making this work for you: Find a business owner. Ask an open ended question, like “What do you think about (something)?” In the meantime, here’s some really bad business advice for you. You may detect a little sarcasm. Or a lot. 

It’s OK to fall behind in bookkeeping. No one really keeps up with it anyway, right? Also, never get a bookkeeper, even if you think you might only need them part time. You can handle it. 

Never guarantee your work. As long as you’ve been paid, the job is done. The consumer needs to do the legwork to figure out who does quality work and who doesn’t. They are expected to take on 100% of the risk of their shopping choices. 

Ignore your customers once you get their money. If they want something, they’ll tell you. Until then, leave them alone until they show up with more money. 

Customer service is a waste of money. Your customers are smart enough to figure out how to use your products and services. If they aren’t, they’ve already paid. The really stumped ones will pay again even if they haven’t figured it out. 

Be difficult to do business with. It gets rid of the lazy customers and those who aren’t willing to cater to your way of doing things. Or maybe you should be easy to do business with. You decide. 

Safety isn’t a big deal. If your existing folks get hurt, you can always find new people to take their place. 

Internet security risks are overblown. All the hype about viruses and hackers and stuff is mostly made up to sell software that probably doesn’t do anything. 

Never call references. There’s really no need to try and find out if a candidate is motivated, or lazy, or awesome, etc. Don’t call them. Just keep hiring people and replace the bad ones.  Calling them is a waste of time because it’s almost certain that their lawyer has advised them not to tell you anything. If they’re a smart person like you, they probably don’t have a lawyer and do it all themselves. Doesn’t matter. They still wouldn’t tell you because that airline magazine said don’t tell anyone anything if they call about former employees. 

Try to be your own lawyer or CPA. Everyone thinks this is a good idea. I know all I need to know about lawyer-ing from that Law and Order show (Whomp-whomp). Accounting and the law is nothing more than math and stern letters. 

Marketing is for losers. If your product or services are good enough, you shouldn’t need to waste time and money on advertising.  

People don’t need to be trained. If they didn’t know what they were doing, we wouldn’t have hired them. 

Salespeople rarely tell the truth. Even better, they rarely stick around for more than a few months, so it’s OK to pay them low commissions. Since they won’t be around long, it’s cool if they make up stories about your products and services as long as it closes a sale. 

Foster a dog-eat-dog mentality among your employees. If they’re competing with each other, they’ll either get better or quit. They’ll also be too busy jockeying for position to spend any time getting together and causing trouble.

Never assume that your clients are smart. Presumably you’ve never suggested that your work is easy enough for your clients to do without you. If they were smart, you wouldn’t make so much money specializing in cleaning up the carnage caused by do it yourself clients.

Databases and customer relationship management is for people who can’t close. Relationships with customers are something for people who can’t sell.

When in doubt, use sarcasm. Seriously, though… All of the items above are obviously (I hope) sarcastic suggestions, so do the opposite. Business is hard enough without taking bad advice, particularly sarcastically bad advice.

Hiring well saves money

When times get tight in our businesses, we look for places to cut expenses (as well as increase revenue). We might cut marketing costs based on the size of the expense (not wise). You might review the performance of your lead sources & reduce / eliminate some that aren’t performing well. In a business that manufactures things, we’d look at automation and raw material costs. We also look at ways to reduce waste. We’re also likely to look at hiring and staff-related expenses.

Getting rid of folks generally creates production and process challenges, but there are “easy” cuts sometimes. So-called easy cuts might include “extra” people, poor performers, and folks who aren’t adapting well to your culture, work, etc. Thing is, these are last minute cost-savings tactics with their own costs – and I’m not referring to unemployment insurance or severance. Our hiring process and ongoing curation of our team rarely gets a look – and that’s where the long term savings are hiding.

Careful hiring can avoid disruption

In general, business owners are a little impatient. Like the girl in Willy Wonka, we want it NOW. However, that sort of impatience is not a good investment at hiring time.

When we don’t take the time to learn enough about a candidate, we risk disrupting our business far and above the level of disruption that a need or departure has created. When we hire badly, we take even more time to fill the position. We create a mess trying to fit the person in, salvage the hire (or place them in another role), and perhaps get rid of the person and end up looking again. Making a hiring mistake can turn the wrong candidate’s life upside down. Getting hired is as much of a pain as hiring someone – and just as difficult.

A bad hire doesn’t imply a bad person. Sometimes, you get the wrong person for the role. Maybe there’s a skill / experience mismatch, or a culture fit that doesn’t work. Sometimes, there’s a behavioral / motivational issue. As such, it makes sense to work a little harder and a little longer to find the right person the first time. 

Hiring better almost always takes longer and it’s certainly more work. I hear and read a lot of “can’t find anyone qualified” comments, but that’s often more about your company, the role, and your pay / benefits scale than it is a lack of people. Hiring isn’t something to rush. It’s one of the biggest investments you’ll make. Hiring before you’ve found the right candidate can be incredibly costly in time, money, morale, and other areas. 

A rough example

A scenario like this played out in Missoula last week. A prominent public facing position became open due to a medical retirement. A replacement was named rather quickly, at least it seemed so. Soon after, the replacement’s comments on social media surfaced. Among other things, they were not particularly complimentary of the company’s industry. Other comments by the candidate received a lot of reaction. In some cases, they wouldn’t matter. It appeared the candidate’s social posts hadn’t been reviewed by the employer, who rescinded the offer the next day. 

Reviewing a candidate’s social media posts may seem like a trivial thing to do. It might even seem like a silly waste of time. However, it’s become essential part of the hiring process and it’ll likely take less than an hour. 99% of the time, you’ll find nothing disqualifying. You’re almost certain to learn more about what’s important in the candidate’s life. The remaining one percent of the time – it’s likely to save you from making a mistake. This is particularly true for hires that might stick for 20-30 years.

I know… when you find a highly qualified candidate, you don’t want to look for disqualifying info. Do it anyway. It’s important to understand as much as possible about a candidate BEFORE you hire them, for your sake and theirs. 

That position has been temporarily filled by the person who planned to retire. My guess is that this generous act will allow the business a bit more deliberate hiring process this time around. 

This isn’t about what happened in Missoula. It’s about what might happen to your business. The time you might waste. The disruption to your business and to the life of the person you hire by mistake. Hire carefully and intentionally. 

Between a rock and a hard place

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

Why do my employees want a union?

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

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

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

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

When not to organize

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

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

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

Will it work?

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

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

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

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

Difficulty created in advance

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

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

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

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

A Labor Day perspective on performance

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

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

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

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

So, which quarterback do you want this year?

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

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

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

Quarterback A’s name is Drew Brees.

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

Yeah.”

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

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

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

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