Sidewalks, groundhogs and accounting

A couple weeks ago, Puxatawney Phil saw his shadow. As the legend goes, this indicated that we’d have six more weeks of winter. Given the kind of winter we’ve had so far, I expect more shoveling before April and May get here. Yet we’re not here to discuss the weather, at least not specifically. As I’ve roamed Montana this winter, I’ve noticed a pattern that struck me and made me a bit curious. Is the condition of the sidewalk and parking lot in front of a business an indicator of how things are being run inside the building?

Have you have heard the theory that the condition of someone’s car is a reflection of their home and/or their life? You may have heard the same about someone with a messy desk. Whether it’s true or not, it’s an interesting parallel to the pattern that I referred to earlier. The pattern is that businesses that I know to be well-run, well-executed “tight ships” always seem to have parking lots that are cleaned up quickly after it snows – and the sidewalks in front of them in almost every case is routinely spotless, salted and kept free of ice.

I don’t have internal knowledge of all the businesses in this pattern – ie: the ones who fit and the ones who don’t, but it’s quite accurate among the ones that I have internal operations knowledge of.

Broken windows

Years ago, there was a book about crime called Broken Windows, which was based on an often argued theory that doing things like immediately fixing broken windows and removing graffiti soon as it appears sends a message to the community that the area is cared for and monitored, so the criminal element goes elsewhere. New York City applied this during its well-known (and successful) battle to reduce crime over the last couple of decades.

Crime is a complex thing when you’re looking at a large urban area. First impressions, however, are not. When you arrive at a business and notice broken windows, dirty bathrooms, dirty floors, messy work areas, a sketchy parking lot, etc – it’s difficult not to wonder how things are going in the back room. How well is that business run? What sort of initial and ongoing training to the employees receive? Are their books a mess? You may not care about how under control their accounting is, but if they can’t seem to do a good job of recording your payments, you’ll start caring.

All of these things can be indicators of bigger, deeper or widespread problems. You can’t necessarily assume – everyone has bad days or makes a mistake now and then. It’s tough to keep up with the snow when you get 48″ of snow in three days.

Why does it matter?

How businesses deal with these things tends to be an incredibly accurate indicator of what’s going on elsewhere in the company. Some have well-thought out plans for what happens on days when roads are all but impassible. For some, it doesn’t matter. For those who you need to go to the hospital, I’ll bet you’ll want them to have a snow “disaster plan” that makes sure the hospital is staffed regardless of the intensity of the weather.

You can see similar things when working with employees. It’s crystal clear which businesses invest in their staff and which ones leave them to learn by the seat of their pants. While experiential learning is often a good thing, training and reinforcement gives everyone the same foundation, and sets minimum standards within a company. Without those things, the customer-facing experience and work quality can differ substantially – the last thing you want.

Why is that important? Consistent experience is everything. People don’t want to worry about which version of your business they’re going to experience today. Why else would someone repeatedly visit the same franchise restaurant as they travel the country? They know they will have a consistent experience. They know how long it will take, what it will cost and what the food will be like – regardless of the class of fare that restaurant serves.

A consistent experience is critically important to customers. The expectation (and history) of a known-to-be-consistent experience is frequently the deciding factor when “all else is equal”, even when it isn’t.

Keeping that in mind – What kinds of signals does your business send?

Structure becomes infrastructure

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the value of checklists. Checklists provide an obvious memory support mechanism and a sequence of events for work processes, but their value extends beyond that. They’re one of many tools you can use to provide structure to work processes, a comforting “I’ve got your back” to new employees or employees new to a role. In addition, they’re a means of creating some standardization of what you do. While your team doesn’t need these things for the same reason that a young child benefits from a structured life, the benefits to your business are at least as important. Structure becomes infrastructure.

Better information

Structure can take many forms in your business. A simple example is a gain in structure when you move from a cigar box to a cash register. Likewise, when you replace the simple cash register with one that’s integrated with your customer relationship management (CRM) system. These improvements increase your ability to share information and leverage it when making decisions of all kinds. Normally a CRM is viewed as a tool for sales and marketing, yet the organization that it brings to transactional data tends to improve service and your company’s understanding of client needs. Any time you can integrate data from multiple parts of the company, you’re almost certain to make the data more valuable. Put simply, having more complete information should yield better decisions.

That transaction data now takes on a behavioral component, since you’re better equipped to recognize order / re-order patterns, capacity expectations and the like. Seems like a sales thing on the surface, and to an extent it is. When you are the business who knows exactly when to refill a client’s supply of a critical component of their business, the trust and comfort level with you improves.

Clients will recognize this and start to depend on your routine fulfillment – whatever that means for your relationship with them. Whether it’s a load of sand, a dozen bags of coffee, or a courier pickup – when they see a consistent, timely behavior develop, they’ll start to depend on as if it’s part of their own infrastructure. Eventually, they’ll build upon it. That’s not just sales – it’s service. While it may seem like a little thing to know that your coffee cup is always refilled in time, that same type of fulfillment isn’t a little thing – it’s worth time and money to your clients. You become part of their business – and perhaps a part that would be increasingly painful to replace.

Being painful and time-consuming to replace is a good goal, but don’t take advantage of it. Being ingrained in their business is sufficient advantage. Don’t make it the kind of pain of change that they’ll suffer simply to gain the pleasure of getting rid of you.

What tools and/or processes can you wrap around your existing checklists and other means of process control to make them more valuable? What two systems, tools or processes can you integrate to make each more valuable? Your people are often the best resource of this info. They’re in the trenches every day and frequently have just the insights needed to make their work more productive, more valuable and more efficient.

But you have to ask.

What structure isn’t

It isn’t control, at least in a negative form. Structure changes that increase your ability to get, stay and be organized are often looked upon as ways of increasing control and decreasing employees’ ability to use their imagination and creativity. While that’s possible, those are what I consider the wrong kinds of structure. Be sure your team understands the benefits you hope the company will gain from these changes. It’s far too easy to assume the wrong thing if you don’t tell them the intended outcome.

Tools and processes that increase the level of organization free your people to expend their energy on the things that require their intelligence and experience. If you use structure to control them and limit their ability to create and deliver solutions – you’re cheating yourself and your clients. Unless the controls you’re putting in place are intended to reduce / detect internal theft or similar problems, I suggest discussing proposed improvements with your staff so you are aware of possible downsides that you may not be aware of. Finally, deployment always benefits from front line feedback and of course, testing.

Inauguration Week, a time to stay focused

I have written on this topic several times over the last 12 years: Inauguration Week. More specifically, what happens to the business world after Inauguration Day. When Bush 43 took over in 2001, there was hand wringing. Before Obama took over in 2009, there was hand wringing. And now, with Trump’s takeover days away, the sound of hands (w)ringing, toll yet again.

The problem? That new President-elect. “He / his policies / his party’s policies will ruin my business.” . Doesn’t matter which President-elect, even though it’s hard to imagine that the last three or four president-elects could be more different from one another. Even so, I hear the same refrain I’ve heard every four to eight years.

I can’t start a business with so-and-so / whichever party coming into power.

My business is in trouble with so-and-so / whichever party coming into power.

Sure, there is some impact

I don’t mean to say there won’t be some impact. This time around, like every time, there is likely to be some impact on the energy business, on taxes, on healthcare, etc. Thing is, they’re impacted seemingly all the time by legislation from both parties, by world events (war, finance, technology changes, OPEC) and more. Is the price of gas / diesel different than it was before Obama? Before Bush 43? Sure. And it will be pretty much every week for years until some point way off in the future when technology matures past the use of those fuels.

However, when it comes to most businesses, the impact is usually trivial and the concern overblown. How you serve your customers and how effectively you sell and market to them has a much bigger impact in most cases than anything some randomly chosen President can do.

Sure, there is a lot of change in Washington. There will be, as always, a lot of pieces moving around on the chess board, and there will be plenty of drama in the news. As there always is.

Little, if any, of this has anything to do with the success of your coffee shop, sandwich store, plumbing business, clothing store, software consultancy, etc.

Don’t let Inauguration Week and a new President distract you and your team. Stay focused on your plan and your goals.

Step away from the drama

There is plenty to look at in the news that can make you take your eye off the ball. Don’t let it win. There is plenty to distract and worry your employees and contractors. YOU have to maintain momentum and leadership. not the TV news. It’s your job to make sure your team doesn’t get distracted and lose confidence over whatever’s going on in the news.

Use all the change as a reason to refocus and stay focused. Use it to rally your team. Remind them that no President has ever had a dramatic effect on your business. Be sure they know that you believe that the group of people working there now will not be the one to allow this (or any) President to be the first to negatively impact your business.

I know this might seem silly to some, but the thought processes are out there. People are always worried about their future when these kinds of changes occur. It’s easy and the news doesn’t help.

You have a plan for the year, right?

I’m sure you have a plan for the year. We’re already halfway through January. Remind your team of where you are toward your January and 1st quarter targets. Given the lack of likely impact by the changes in DC, it’s an opportunity to show your team what early trends look like.

Your team and your market has had over two months since the election to settle down. If your business is down since that time, I hope you know why. It might be normal for this time of year. If it isn’t, determine the cause and share it with your team. The last thing they need is to let the belief that four or eight years of that is inevitable.

For the same reason, if your business is up over the last two months, be sure to explain why. Your team needs to know why and how their work is affecting results and not that something completely out of their control (like political change) is driving your business’s performance.

Keep them up to date on the plan, its progress and course corrections you’re making. Keep your eye (and theirs) on the ball.

A well-armed minutiae: Urgent, not important.

Yes, I said “minutiae”, not “militia”. The similarity and power of these two words struck me, so I thought I’d substitute one for the other. One of the most dangerous things in your (and your team’s) day to day productivity is the “crisis of the unimportant”. IE: tasks that seem important only because someone interrupted you with them. Minutiae are the little things that, left uncontrolled, will consume your day and leave it unfulfilling, perhaps annoying and almost certainly empty of substantive accomplishments. Stephen Covey spent his career preaching about preventing these tasks from consuming your day – categorizing them as “urgent, not important”.

Eliminate minutiae with systems

As the owner or a senior manager, it’s critical to get out of the “interrupt me early and often” mode as soon as you can – but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the needs of those who interrupt you. You simply need to find a way to deal with them and set boundaries for them. A system helps.

Back in the days of Photo One, photography studio owners asked me to solve this problem for them. To the studio shooter, the most valuable revenue-creation time was in the camera room – ie: behind the camera time with the client in a room full of props, lights and other tools of the studio photographer. When they’re in that room with a client, the value they’re creating can create revenue for years, so the last thing they want to happen once they have “warmed up” the subject is to have the rapport / groove interrupted by someone asking where the coffee filters are, or how to process a refund for a charge split across two cards, or similar.

One answer to this is a system that provides answers to “interruption questions”. A studio owner told me that they had an answer / procedures book to deal with this, but they didn’t like the maintenance headache that it caused. This book predated Google docs and wikis, so they edited everything in Microsoft Word (or similar) and then printed the answers / procedures and put them in a three-ring binder.

The process established in the studio was to consult the book if you didn’t know the answer, then ask your manager and only then could the shooter in the camera room be interrupted. That interruption was OK only if it couldn’t wait until the camera room appointment was over. Obviously, this becomes a training issue at first so that the proper habits are established. Beyond that point, the book should get updated with one-off requests quickly so that camera room interruptions fall off quickly.

Make sure your minutiae cure is scalable

The studio owner came to me because they had a big studio and one book wasn’t enough. They needed multiple copies, but managing all the changes was a chore. Since most of the users were lusing Photo One all day, it made perfect sense to include the equivalent of “the answer book” within our software. That allowed anyone to get to it, plus the answer book functionality in the software allowed them to print a copy of the book so there were always printed copies available.

Resources like this can provide answers to questions, as well as step by step checklists or processes that allow the owner and managers to get things done the way they want, even if they aren’t available. One memorable example was “How to arm the alarm at end of day”. Do this wrong and you have no security or incorrect security. Do it right and the owner / manager gets some slack and the employee builds confidence in their ability to close the shop for the day.

A wiki, a FAQ, anything

These days, a custom desktop software feature like that really isn’t necessary because it’s so easy to build something like this into the private side of your company’s website as an internal wiki or frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) page. These assets are valuable not only for managers and your subject matter experts (SME) who get interrupted by such questions, but also for new employees or temps who come into your shop and need a resource other than “Ask Jennifer” umpteen times per week.

The last time I started getting overwhelmed by these things, I started writing down the context of the interruptions. That allowed me to see trends, identify what needed to be documented and get out of interruptionville.

Look beyond today, ourselves, our businesses

Recently, I read an article that provoked the reader to pay more attention to the big picture and look beyond the immediate meaning of day to day events. The premise of the piece was that “little”, seemingly unrelated events have repeatedly lead to regional or global events throughout history – such as the “minor assassination” of an Austrian prince ultimately led to World War I. It struck me that this premise also had business implications.

One of the core discussions in this piece was that we (as a species) often fail to see events coming, and that the path from point A to B seems obvious when historians examine them decades or centuries later.

While historians have the benefit of having the puzzle laid out before them, they claim that we (again, as a species) have been pretty consistent about three things contribute to our inability to detect these situations before (or as) they happen:

  • People tend to look at their present for answers, rather than considering the past or future.
  • People tend to look immediately around them, rather than analyzing how events connect regionally or globally.
  • People tend not to push themselves intellectually. Specifically, we don’t read enough, spend enough time thinking beyond the prior two points, challenge ourselves enough, and often tune out opposing views.

These are not accusations unique to today’s world, but observations noted repeatedly by historians dating back to Plato.

Look beyond the present

Let’s take that template of observations and use it to overlay our careers as owners, managers and employees.

When we look back, will we see some obvious signals that we missed over during our business career to date? For the things that stick out, would you do the same thing knowing what you know today? Do you feel you missed a signal or a piece of information that would have prompted you to do something else? Did you learn a lesson at the time that served you well? Months or years later, did a lesson hit you about those events?

Maybe there’s something to this, maybe not. Regardless of how your track record holds up under re-examination, the premise is worthy of consideration. How do the things that happened in the past impact current challenges? Do the methods being used to deal with these things hold up over time? Would your decision-making process or the execution seem naive, ill-advised, or not observant a year (or five) from now? If so, why?

Should that impact your execution and decision making processes? History says (in so many words) “yes, over all people and all times”, but everyone’s history varies.

Look beyond your immediate reach

Beyond your immediate reach, what is going on in your market? What’s going on in the markets that affect your suppliers (and their suppliers) and your clients (and their clients)? What events going on right now could affect you, your clients, their clients or your suppliers, even though they might be a layer or two removed from their day to day collective concerns?

For example, if you have a small party store, there are a number of things in the international community that affect you and your clients. Currency. International logistics. Regional conflicts. Tariffs. Trade agreements. A strike on the Long Beach docks.

Can you do anything about these events that are out of your reach? Probably not. However, you can use your knowledge of them to take action to protect your business and your clients’ businesses. Like it or not, you’re in their line of work as well, so paying close attention to what impacts them is important, even when it has nothing to do with what you do or sell.

Look beyond your norms

This one is complicated: read more, challenge yourself more, think more and review things contrary to your opinion. Yet it’s also simple and can be summed up in one word: Grow.

The single most important thing we can do for our business over the long term is to make ourselves better. A better read, better trained, better prepared, better developed business owner is more likely to make better decisions. That business owner sets the example for their team’s growth. When we have a deeper understanding of all sides of the challenges we face, and a deeper knowledge of the issues that affect our businesses and our clients’ businesses, we’re prepared to make better decisions.

Accountability and tapdancing

You may have seen a recent video of a Senate Finance Committee hearing with the Chairman of the Board of a large bank. He was being questioned about his accountability for his company’s behavior regarding opening new accounts on behalf of their clients.

Form your own opinion about the hearing. We’re here to discuss why it was handled as it was by the Chairman and why you can’t do that.

What you can’t do

The infuriating things about the video:

  • The Chairman makes a few comments that give the impression that his company did no wrong.
  • He shows no sign of accountability for the whole thing (and nor do his managers).
  • He indicates that he can’t provide guidance to the board about the nature of the company’s future actions.
  • He asserts that the whole thing was about one percent of his employees, with a tone that implies it’s really not a problem at all.

What makes it even more aggravating is that the value of the Chairman’s stock rose about $200 million during the period discussed. This means that the value of the company’s stock was misrepresented during that time.

Bottom line, while the camera was running, he washed his hands of the whole thing and of his possible future role in taking corrective action, much less punitive action against the senior managers involved.

Yet, he had a decent enough reason.

The reason for his position is that anything he said during that questioning was likely to be used against him and the company. Whether he is a slimy cretin or not, he is an officer in the company and has a fiduciary obligation to protect the company. One might theorize that lying (if that’s what he was doing) isn’t a good way to do that, but I suspect he was advised well in advance about what he could and couldn’t say to avoid making things worse.

Unless you’re the CEO / Chair of the Board / officer of a publicly traded company, you can’t do that.

What you have to do

If something bad like this happens, the worst things you can do are exactly what he did:

  • Dodge questions.
  • Give vague answers or non-answers.
  • State that you have no responsibility, despite being the Chairman of the Board (or in your case, the owner)
  • State that you have no obligation to lead your board to a decision about making management accountable.
  • State that you cannot lead your board to a decision about making yourself accountable
  • Decline to comment about your level of accountability.

This guy’s customers have a choice. They can get over it in some form, or they can eliminate this company from their lives by closing all of their accounts and banking elsewhere. Moving bank accounts is not easy. Between the regulations that require a bunch of paperwork (in most cases) and a visit to a local bank branch, and changing any electronic bill payments (or similar), it isn’t fun.

Your customers will likely have a much easier time moving to a competitor – if that is their choice. Your comments to any questions about whatever you’re dealing with are going to set the tone for their response and reaction.

When you do these things, you likely won’t be scrutinized by the Senate. In your case, your clients will likely be judge, jury and (hopefully not) executioner.

It was only one percent of our employees

One part of this hearing stuck out to me. The Chair said (paraphrased) “it was only one percent of our employees“. His tone implied that they were bad apples and he had no control or oversight over them. He said that despite the fact that there was a senior manager responsible for implementing the program that created this mess. That senior manager worked for him. Management laid out the program these people worked under, created a bonus schedule for it, oversaw the program and made it expectations clear.

Whether one percent of your employees is 5000 people or five (or it’s just you), you don’t have the choice this guy made. You have to take accountability straight up and dole it out to your team as well. When and if something like this happens, the responsibility to all yours. Own up to it, take your licks, hand out a few as needed and make changes to prevent future occurrences. The rest of your business’ life depends on it.

Which little things do you let slide?

We often let little things go because we have “bigger fish to fry”. We prioritize tasks, clients, products and services over others of the same sort because we have to. Prioritization of what’s important today over what might be important tomorrow, or even later today is perfectly normal. We have to do it.

The challenge with little things is that they add up, particularly when they’re repeatedly set aside. They have a way of ganging up and creating momentum, as if they were a colony of ants. Together, a colony can move things much larger than any single ant.

We cannot allow any error in judgment to delude us into thinking that ‘letting the little thing slide’ would not make a major difference.” – Jim Rohn

What little things?

What sort of little things come to mind for you as important for your business?

For me, the little things that matter are those things that tell me what the business thinks is important. Every business says the customer is important, but how do they prove it? Do their words match their actions? Little things are a great place to sort this out.

Little things explicitly communicate what’s important to the owners of the business. They tell me about the culture of the business and paint a picture of what’s important to the business’ management team. These things indicate how hard the ownership and management has thought about what their customers need, want and expect.

Their consideration of and emphasis placed on these things is reflected in the staff’s behavior. Their behavior is an indicator of the quality of management. It signals management’s emphasis during staff training, as well as the quality and frequency of that training. All of this points at the importance placed on serving their clients’ needs, wants and expectations.

Think about the curb appeal of a house. Consider your impression when stopping in front of a home with a weedy, un-mowed yard. Now think about the impression you have when viewing a nicely manicured one. What does that tell you about the upkeep, maintenance and care taken for the rest of each home? Your impression might be wrong – but changing that impression is tough. A business with poor “curb appeal” may never get a chance to improve the impression they’ve left.

That’s exactly what little things can do. They have a knack for sending a big message to your clients.

Prioritization by impact

Big things matter. If you think back over your career, I’m sure you can think of a number of big issues that started out as little things that were left to fester. But which ones? It’s critical to separate the little unimportant things from the little things that can fester into big ones. And how exactly do you do that? One of the most important prioritization skills you can develop is the ability to determine which of these little things are unimportant and which need to be dealt with before they create big problems.

I tend to look at the impact, rather than the size.

If something small is likely to impact a number of people, it won’t be small for long. That’s the kind of little thing that requires short term attention. Little things to you, your team and your business might be big things to your clientele, which speaks to your awareness of client needs, wants and expectations.

If something small isn’t communicated, it can become something big simply by not letting your clients know about it – and know that you’re aware of it. Even if you believe it’s a little thing, communicate anyway. This gives the client a chance to say “Thanks, no problem” or “Hey, it’s not a big deal in and of itself, but it’s going to create another problem that causes a big impact.” The incremental cost of that brief advisory to the client is tiny. The return on investment on that communication can be sizable if it helps keep a small issue from morphing into something ugly.

If you only identify one of these situations per year and it results in keeping a client you might have lost, the return on investment is obvious. If you retain one sale a month by categorizing these little things and taking action on the important ones, the return on investment is obvious.

Emergencies or “Mom, why is your hair on fire?”

Is every day or every week the context for another emergency or crisis at your business? How do you and your staff survive it from week to week?

What do I mean “emergency” or “crisis”?

I’m thinking of some sort of event that causes you and/or your staff to drop everything to solve a problem that has arisen with a client, or worse, with a product or service that impacts numerous clients.

The ups and downs

While the upside of such events is small, they do exist.

  • Your team learns how they can depend on one another.
  • Your clients see your team and your capabilities at their best. Usually.
  • Your management sees what the team can handle and what it can’t.
  • Sales often discovers an opportunity.

Several things take punishment during these situations:

  • Your reputation with the client. Even when / if you quickly bring resources to the situation and resolve it, the memory of “yet another crisis” will take time to erase, particularly if you and your team were ultimately responsible. Being able to resolve a situation means a lot unless you could also have prevented it.
  • Your team’s resilience. While these situations “build muscle”, they also contribute to fatigue.
  • Your team’s timelines. If these situations are normal, then your team is likely to expect their timelines to be less meaningful because they know someone else’s crisis will intervene.
  • Costs during a crisis management are almost always higher because exceptions have to be made.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste”

You’ve probably heard this Churchill quote, but I think a better angle on your use of it is this quote:

Sometimes when Fortune scowls most spitefully, she is preparing her most dazzling gifts.‘ -Winston Churchill, 1931.

While there is no doubt that you can use the point of the “…go to waste” quote to your advantage to sell products and services that might provide preventative care, services in time of crisis or similar, not letting crisis go to waste is bigger than that. Using these situations as a lesson and example helps your staff, particularly your sales staff, grasp the value of that which your client-side product, service and delivery teams can do when pushed. The creativity and problem solving your teams provide might prompt your sales team to come up with new products and/or services that didn’t seem important a few weeks ago.

Better yet, and in a nod to Churchill, the situations themselves provide the context (and yes, a little bit of fear) that your clients may need to understand why an investment in preventative services is a good investment. At times, simply being able to show up on your client’s site a few times a year to step through their workflow and see what you can’t see every day is hugely valuable.

Programmers often cringe when they watch clients use their software because they can’t believe how the software is being used. The user’s reaction to a particular feature or user interface / user experience can be just as compelling. Until you invest in the time (even on your client’s dime) to immerse yourself in their business and experience what they experience on a daily basis with your products and services – you probably haven’t learned enough about them to help them in the best way possible. That impacts sales as well, since the lack of this knowledge can easily keep you from understanding the one powerful motivator, situation or pressure point that is the key to everything they do.

Can you prevent them?

Emergencies and crises can a product of letting products, services and/or situations fester, or of being so busy and/or understaffed that you can’t take proper care of your client relationships. However, they can just as easily happen to your company despite being on top of everything as best as you know how. A client’s own situations with their clients, equipment, staff, planning – or lack thereof – can create these situations just as easily.

For the situations you can’t avoid or easily resolve through consistent preventative maintenance, account management and client relationship care and feeding – it’s best to have a plan of attack. Your plans won’t always work out. Your plans won’t always prepare you for every situation. Despite that, having considered what you will do for the situations you’ve dealt with in the past – particularly repetitive ones – will help you and your staff deal with the new-to-you emergencies.

Focus alone isn’t enough.

If you’re a frequent reader on business improvement, you’ll undoubtedly read something that encourages you to focus. Focus on one niche. Stop multi-tasking and focus. Worry about the numbers – they should be your focus. Focus on the customer or on your employees, or on <insert list of more focus items here>.

OK, so what should I focus on?

Focus alone isn’t enough. You can’t really give the proper amount of dedicated attention to 37 different things. You’re going to have to figure out what YOUR list is and either delegate, skip or outsource the rest. Otherwise, nothing will get the attention it deserves and all aspects of your business are likely to suffer.

In the early days, this is toughest because it might just be you and no one else. So what drives your decision to let something slide a little, be it a day, a week or “forever”?

The long term.

It depends on your long term goals, but most of the small business owners I talk with tend to be 50+. As a result, they are seeing retirement a decade or two out. In most cases, they’re at cruising altitude with their business and have left behind the years of struggle and work to keep it open, then make it profitable and so on. They’re focused on maximizing the value of the business in the time that remains before they decide to sell.

The best have focused on building that company from the outset. “What do I focus on when it’s just me?” was answered for them years ago. Notwithstanding the random short term challenges that we all face now and then, their answer is “What can I do that is most important for my clients while growing the value of my company over the long term?”

The upside is that for a small business, it focuses you on the things that should get and keep your attention even if your plans to sell are 30 to 40 years away.

So your eyes are riveted on the buyout?

Yes, even if it’s decades away.

Building for a buyout is much different for a small company than for one on Wall Street. A privately-held company can focus on becoming more attractive to a buyer via predictable, consistent positive cash flow and profitability – with no stock price to lose sleep over. These things come over the long term through obvious accomplishments that most small businesses strive for: solid products and services, repeat business, great customer care, etc.

Obvious, right? The things that make a company profitable to the owner will eventually be the things that make it attractive to purchase. Part of that attraction is eliminating as much risk as possible from the buyer’s purchase. I don’t mean guaranteeing revenue or profits. I mean by selling a company that is inherently low risk due to the way it operates.

For example, you can reduce risk and build value by building quality, value-packed products, services and systems that produce dependable recurring revenue. You can reduce risk and build value by providing great customer care. Those loyal customers produce recurring sales and provide referrals that lead to new clients. You’ve reduced risk by structuring your company to survive the day you get hit by a bus. The same strategies will protect the company if you decide on short notice to fish Alaska for six months.

Do you feel your business is ready to sell?

When you sell a house, there’s that list of projects you have to get done in order to make it easier to sell. Once you finish the projects that seem essential to selling your home, seller’s remorse sets in a little bit. You wish you had made those improvements years before so that you could have enjoyed them. You enjoy the home a little more in your final days there – in part because of the changes you put off for months or years for whatever reason.

A business often has the same list. They make the business some combination of less risky, easier to run, more profitable, and/or less hassle. Over time, the value of these projects pay for themselves and make the company more attractive to the right buyer.

Making the company more attractive to the right buyer takes a long term view. You and your team will benefit in the meantime.

Are you battling complacency?

One of the most serious challenges that a company can face is complacency. Whether it takes root among the leadership, the team or even their clientele, it can create permanent damage.

Complacency in leadership

You may have heard comments like these if your company’s leaders have become complacent:

  • We’re doing ok. I don’t see any need to change anything.
  • Our competition will never catch us.
  • We don’t need to invest in new tooling.
  • That new startup in our market is doomed. I’m not worried about them.
  • Our staff doesn’t need training.

Complacent leadership can produce fear, a lack of confidence and complacency among the staff. Fixing your company’s leadership, including their complacency, is part of your job as a business owner – and that includes your own leadership.

Complacency among the staff

There are at least two kinds of complacency that can creep in here: career complacency and job complacency. They’re often interconnected since someone complacent about the job may also all but given up on career growth. Not everyone has big plans for their career, so don’t assume that someone who isn’t pushing, pushing, pushing isn’t doing a good job – they may simply lack the drive, ambition or need to be your next senior leader.

If someone used to have that drive and ambition and no longer seems to, it’s possible that they’ve checked out and have succumbed to job complacency, which has more context with performance, much less with going the extra mile.

Job complacency, as noted previously, may relate back to leadership, but it may also be the person’s day to day mindset and overall quality of life will affect these things. The conditions of their life and lifestyle affect how they view life, how they work and the nature of their career aspirations. Your staff don’t become new people when they walk in the door.

Anything you can do to help them restore confidence in themselves will impact their job performance. Likewise, fixing things related to their job duties, environment, accountability and responsibility is likely to raise their self-worth outside your walls, not just inside them.

Many people take their jobs quite personally. When they’re in a situation where they don’t have the authority to do their job, or the environment works against them, it can infect their entire lives – enough to make them feel the need to move on, even though the thing you can fix seems trivial.

Complacent service

We’ve all seen it. Someone waiting on you, helping you in a store, helping you over the phone, or even on Twitter. They’re going through the motions. “Your call is important to us“, right?

What creates the complacency that gets a customer support team to that point? Their leadership, certainly. What’s the focus of the customer support manager? What metrics are important? What tools and authority to “make things right” does the team have? These are the things that make a support team vested in the solutions they provide.

A lack of these things can create a seed of cynicism, doubt or negativity that complacency can grab onto. In your service department, you simply can’t afford that.

Complacent products

It’s impossible for a product to be complacent – it doesn’t have a soul of its own.

That said, if those who design and build your products are infected with complacency, your products are quite likely to have it designed and/or built in.

This can happen whether they are “knowledge workers” or the folks in your wood or metal shop. What they design and create isn’t the point – that they have a customer-centric, long-term viability mindset when designing and building things is the key.

Leadership can affect this as well, since products might be designed and built with a strategic goal as well as a revenue goal. Cash flow and sales are important, but does that new product target a new market, a new lead source or does it increase your conversion rate? Does it serve a new tier of customers? Does it encourage the sale of services or increase the lifetime investment of the client?

Products that are not conceived, designed and built with a strategic purpose can create complacency if those who design and build them wonder “Why are we doing this?

As a leader, your job is to root out complacency at all levels.