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Employee Training Employees Leadership Small Business

Leading change

Listen closely to how today’s business and political leaders talk about change. How many of them are talking about preparing their businesses, our cities, our states, and our country (much less the world) for change?

More often than not, their conversations are about slowing down, stopping, or reversing changes – ignoring a future that will arrive whether they like it or not. (No, I’m not referring to the virus.) These leaders might appear to be in charge of leading change (or at least managing our response to it), but most of them aren’t actually doing anything of the sort… not really.

The majority of the conversations are positioned in terms of the good old days, whether that was 10 months, 10 years or half a century ago. A few are talking about a future that will advance at a pace not unlike the pace of the last 20 years. The idea is that we manage an unforeseen next five years with the thinking learned a decade (or three) earlier, expecting the pace of progress (in either direction) of the next five years to match the pace of change of the prior five years.

“There are no situations and no exceptions where a subordinate is ultimately responsible for the performance of a team. It is always the leader’s fault.”

Jocko Willink

Perspective

The problem with trying to manage all this with thinking from the good old days, or with thinking formed while working with the pace of change over the last 20 years, is that these approaches fail to recognize the current reality: That the pace of change is increasing constantly.

While the jaded might think this perspective is intentional, I suspect most of it isn’t. Some of it is a lack of vision. These folks are too tightly coupled to a reality / situation they need or want to defend, even if it’s from another time and place. I’m speaking broadly here: not specifically about any one business, personal situation, financial position / viewpoint, etc. We have to be very, very careful how we choose business and political leaders as we move forward. Look back at how technology and automation changes have caught leaders and groups of leaders (like Congress) completely off guard.

An obvious and somewhat recent example is that they’ve had to react well after the fact to the impact of the internet, robotics, genome technology, etc.

As an example, is the internet a utility? (because that means we can put an existing administrative organization and rules in charge of it) Is it a service? Is it a monopoly? Is it a right? Or do we decide that it’s another kind of telephone call so that we can use all the old phone regulations to manage it? (and thus, protect it or ruin it, depending on your outlook). Look back at rural electrification for clues.

Our leadership choices become more important every day because of the increasing pace of change. The virus has helped a lot of people understand how exponential change works. When exponential change takes hold, 15 quickly becomes 300, and in the space of a couple weeks becomes 30,000 then 100,000 and so on.

What we’re ill prepared for from a leadership perspective is that change itself is changing at an exponential pace.

Important at all levels

It isn’t important solely at the Federal level. It’s important at every level from the Feds all the way down to a seemingly innocuous city / county position on a board. Imagine that a local county board member considering an important decision. Does it matter if their vote on a health topic is based on their evaluation of information collected by qualified, highly-experienced, trusted people in the county, or is it OK if the decision is made based on the Greeks’ four humors?

Let me simplify this a bit. Is it a bad idea to eat week old sushi? Does it depend on the status of a diner’s humors? Whether the topic is sushi aging, inoculations, water rights, or traffic circles – do you want someone whose mindset is mired in the 1700s making those decisions for you?

Dealing with change isn’t easy. As humans, we tend to avoid it by our very nature. As Chris Hogan says “Nobody likes change, but everyone likes improvement.” Even so, leading change – usually in advance – is leadership’s job – whether they like it or not.

It’s not hard to look around and find examples that show how difficult it is for leaders at all levels to keep up with the changes that have occurred over since 1980 (OMG was that really 40 years?). Compare not just the changes between 1940 and 1980 to the changes between 1980 and 2020, but the pace of change in those two periods.

Now consider that we’ve even accomplished many of the things many people expected of us 80 or even 60 years ago. Where are the flying cars?

Influence & management

The easiest place to see this is in emerging industries. Look at software, computers, drones, the internet, medicine, or really – anything we’ve struggled to keep up with in recent decades. Some industries have benefited from the lack of understanding by elected / appointed leaders, even though this may not have served us well over the long term.

Sometimes those industries become massive, wielding significant influence ($ talks) before leaders manage to figure out what they do, how they do it, and what the impacts might be. This can be a good, bad, or neutral thing, and is probably split across all three. The important observation is that we need the kind of leadership capable of dealing with a future that’s coming whether we like it or not.

We’ve all seen an industry that does something incorrectly, builds a low quality product (or a product with a serious flaw) that causes a substantial loss of value, loss of life, etc. It’s rare to hear that leadership has prepared a company in advance for these issues by rethinking how they design, build and deploy products and services *before* they launch, but it does happen.

The normal context of corrective action and/or putting safety corrections in place “What can we do so that never happens again?” It’s as if we’re completely incapable of theorizing, thinking a process through from beginning to end, testing in real world situations, validating results without using situational ethics, etc. While the law of unintended consequences can find a way to make the best of intentions seem inept, we shouldn’t empower it. We’re often more concerned about how to handle it the public relations angle or “optics”.

When it makes sense to consider how we’re going to make sure something never happens again, it tends to be spoken of and executed in the same mindset and terminology that created the problem. Put those two together, and you have a cadre of business and political leaders that are wholly unprepared for the future, and in fact, don’t seem to recognize what’s going on around them. We can do better.

It’s impossible to go back

No matter how wonderful or awful you felt back during the good ole days, regardless of which decade that identifies, the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s (etc) are all but irrelevant to use as a comparison when trying to lead people, companies, and governments today.

It’s impossible to go back. Even if we could, the things about those times that we and leaders have conveniently forgotten about the good ole days could hit us with the force of an angrily swung two by four.

We conveniently forget that change was difficult back then, just as it is today. Maybe you were a kid at the time, or maybe you’re old enough to have been a leader back then. Either way, there’s no doubt that your mind has hidden the hard parts of that decade (not to mention the really hard parts). It’s probably not intentional, but simply how our memory works. Ask your grandparent or parent about your favorite decade. They may remember it differently than you do.

If your leaders want to take your company or your community back to one of those decades because they thought it was easier to lead in that decade, bear in mind that you get ALL of that decade – not simply the parts folks fondly recall.

Do we outlaw the things we blame for today’s difficulties? Are you going to outlaw electrical power? Are you going to outlaw wireless communications? Are you going to outlaw the use of silicon? (ie: to make computer chips) If so, do we also outlaw the use of any sort of technology to improve our lives? What about improvements in clothing, food, medicine, etc? What about radial tires? Plastic? Radar? Jet-Skis? Color TV?

That’s what leaders are talking about when they suggest it’d be best to go back to those times. When your leaders say they’d like to take us back to some chosen decade, what they’re really saying is that they can’t cope with what’s going on today (or that they’re not willing to try) – and that they believe the same about you.

Tomorrow’s change is the job

If they can’t handle today, how will leaders handle what’s going to happen tomorrow? It doesn’t even matter whether the “unhandle-able” thing is positive or negative.

To be sure, it’s not just the negative things. It’s also the positive accomplishments that industry, groups, and individuals create. People lose their minds over the fact that some change is going to impact them. Rather than consider the possibility of the impact of those changes, they simply double down, refuse to accept them, and do everything they can to stop the change from happening, often without pausing to learn anything about the change other than what they were told by a self-proclaimed expert on Facebook.

Leading through tomorrow’s change is leadership’s job.

As an example, we (collectively) worry about the rise of self-driving (autonomous or semi-autonomous) cars, forgetting that cargo ships, airplanes, spacecraft, and other things have “self-driven” for years. Most of the deaths and “accidents” involving these technologies tend to happen when humans turn them off, override them, or use them improperly. To be sure, these situations are not limitedt to that. Technology failures exist, and the introduction of human error, ego, and/or over-confidence don’t help matters.

Consider the number of plane crashes caused by pilot error. The number is fairly small, but the percentage is not so small. Depending on the source of the data, the percentage of crashes determined to be caused in some way by pilot error is 75-80% (Google it), with the remaining 20% or so mostly related to equipment malfunction or weather. The number of actual crashes is small, thanks to a combination of technology refined over many years and flights, combined with a group of highly trained, highly experienced, very disciplined people (flight crews).

As romantic as it might seem, do we really want to go back to the DC-3 or the Ford Tri-Motor?

Change is everywhere

Earlier, I referred to the need for leaders who can handle rapid change all the way from the Federal to local levels. You might have thought that it’s overkill to expect local leadership to need the skills, vision, and insight to cope with these things. Perhaps it seems we don’t need that because we don’t do that sort of work around here.

Thing is, that kind of change is happening almost everywhere.

While there have been all sizes of software companies in Montana for at least 25 years, that’s not the technology I’m referring to. A decade or so ago, a different sort of technology company started popping up around Montana. We had energy storage technology firms, cryogenics firms, and more recently, a nanomedicine company.

Yes, nanomedicine. In other words, researching and creating solutions to medical problems using tools and technology and treatments created at the nanotechnology scale.

Nanotechnology is the branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers, especially the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. What’s a nanometer? One billionth of a meter. In other words, cut your yard stick into one billion pieces lengthwise and you’ll be close. A billion can be hard to grasp. If you cut that yard stick into a million pieces, to get a billion, you’d have to slice those million slices one thousand times. We’re talking small.

This is the kind of change that’s happening everywhere. It’s the change that business and political headers must be able to discuss and encourage, not merely tolerate and be aggravated about.

The research and the solutions that nanomedicine yields is performed by people with PhDs, undergrad degrees, and in a few cases, even undergrad students, programmers and clerical folks. As you might expect, there are salespeople and other not-as-technical roles. This work doesn’t happen just in NYC, LA, Silicon Valley, Asia, India, and the Harvard / MIT corridor, but right here in your state.

Not limited to new industries

These changes are not solely the domain of “super high-tech” industries. Look at the advancement of mechanized, semi-automated, and automated timber processing over the last few decades. 30 years ago, those were a figment of someone’s imagination.

Today, it wouldn’t surprise me if somebody is working on an autonomous version of that equipment that will automatically understand what parcel of land it’s on, what species the tree is, how old the tree is, what grade the tree’s wood is most likely to be, etc.

This team of machinery could choose the highest value trees to harvest, present them to another robot who would transport it to another robot which will prepare it for transport, and put it on a truck. Maybe that truck will be autonomous. Another group of robots might do slash cleanup, and still another would return after slash cleanup to replant. All of this is probably old news to someone working on timber harvesting technology.

While that doesn’t kill the timber business, it’ll certainly have a major impact on it. For one, the lumber business will become even more capital intensive. A yard full of autonomous robotic equipment that can do this work won’t be cheap. The development and testing processes alone will be incredibly expensive.

Such equipment would render the timber business far less human intensive, even though the currently available generation of felling and harvesting equipment has already lowered manpower requirements. Just look at the machines that a single operator can run and how much work they can get done in a day. For the specialist walking those acres and working today’s equipment, these changes may feel like a threat. A phrase like “lowered manpower requirements” doesn’t hide the fact that a family’s breadwinner still needs work.

New products, old products

Leadership includes helping that industry, its workers, and affected communities adjust, and prepare to thrive in a new future rather than simply giving up and leaving everyone to fend for themselves. Leaders help create a better future, even if it’s a slightly (or substantially) different one.

Some leaders might think that it’ll take 20 years for that robotic equipment to make these imagined industry changes become reality, so they think they have plenty of time. They might be thinking “I won’t even be in leadership or political office 20 years from now, so why bother even thinking about it?” However, when we look at the rate of change in the capability and price of robotic technology over the last five years, “that’ll probably take 20 years” starts to seem a bit ridiculous.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see intelligent robots whose harvest is planned by a professional forester who reviewed robotically collected timber data from the site. This might involve some sort of mapping expert, even though the foresters I know are mapping experts. Maybe there will be someone to guide those robots similar to how a drone pilot guides a drone flying over the dangerous territory.

Perhaps this robot will be able to sense certain kinds of animal habitat, human habitat, watersheds, legal boundaries, bodies of water, etc. Maybe it will be able to detect data on animal movement (etc) and send it back to the “home office”. It’s possible that combining that data with other piece of data from some other machine or location could prove valuable to the logging company, the landowner, or someone else. Land has many uses and so does the data observed about it.

Where do the jobs go?

Somebody’s going to need to know how to repair those robots. We’re going to need to know how to train a company’s people to operate and maintain them, program them, etc. The vendor who creates them can educate them on all the different species that they would want to sell them to, you know, for customers who would need them. But there’s always localized information about that sort of thing.

“Localized information” could be data that comes from and/or is refined by people – perhaps from the same people who have walked that land for years. It may involve localized robotic programming or data curation of some kind involving a species expert. Robots will need educated timber firmware or something like that. The data will constantly change as weather, moisture, harvest, growth and other data changes.

Where does that leave the truck driver and the folks that are out in the forest doing this work? While some of it is dangerous, high-risk work, it’s also good paying work. Leaders can’t abandon those people, but they also can’t stop the change. Helping employees, communities, and companies adjust to these changes on a reasonable timeline before a crisis occurs is what change-ready leaders must do.

Capital talks

This is not just a leadership challenge. It’s a challenge for education and financial systems. The ability to see where their industry is going, and help students and employees avoid getting themselves pigeonholed in a career that’s disappearing is the responsibility of everyone involved – education, leadership, and the employees themselves.

There are numerous financial implications. You buy a house, a car and perhaps you buy or lease a logging truck. You hire a bunch of folks to get out in the woods and do the work, and then you find a competitor found a way to get their hands on one of these automated timber robots. Their margins might suddenly be much higher than yours. Either they make far more profit, or they undercut your price. You’re stuck because of your overhead.

What do you do? You don’t have a few million to buy robots. One solution is to look back at how these problems were solved in the past.

Cotton gin & timber math

Consider Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. Only the most financially successful farmers could afford cotton gins when they were first available. Others had to compete with those who had the mechanical gins. Whitney figured out his prospective customers had a capital problem, so his company rented them to farmers for a piece of their crop. That allowed his company to grow, while getting his machinery into the hands of farmers who would struggle to compete without one. The last thing he needed was a shrinking, consolidating industry.

Likewise, robotics is a capital intensive business. It takes a lot of time and capital to design, prototype, test and manufacture robots. It requires engineers to design, people to test, programmers to program, foresters and others to identify all the necessary species, collect and refine the data, and so on. It requires buying robots that manufacture your robots, and people to install, manage, repair, and monitor that manufacturing process.

Once these machines work, the math is difficult to ignore. (Sound familiar?) If a set of robots can, in a week, do the work 100 men complete in a week, then someone will start doing the math. If they don’t, they’ll soon have to compete with someone who WILL do the math. The math will change quickly as the robots increase their productivity.

“The math” means figuring the full extrapolated cost of those hundred men, their equipment, their fuel / food / medical care, training, pensions, health benefits, managers, supervisors, transportation and so on – then comparing it to the traditional cost of getting that work done. Somewhere in there, there are fixed and variable costs. At some point, the robots will make sense financially, or maybe they won’t. Time will tell. In some industries, they will. We’ve already seen that.

If they do make sense, the robot sellers can take a page from Whitney’s sales manual and say “Look, you don’t have to pay anything up front, simply pay me a percentage of your haul once you get paid.” At that point, the game changes.

On-ramps are critical

If leaders wait until the game has changed, it’s too late.

When some of these employees and contractors find that they aren’t needed anymore, or that the number of companies who do need them are steadily shrinking, it’s starting to be too late. At first, some of the people are needed for fewer shifts. At some point, the work they do might not be needed anymore.

If we’ve not prepared for that, and are unable (or unwilling) to prepare people to be ready for those transitions, we (and they) are going to get a surprise. You may think it doesn’t affect you because of what you do, but these dollars flow freely in the community. It will affect you at some point, even if the effect is caused by career changes for someone who lives 1500 miles away.

It isn’t about being ready for a legal 60 day layoff warning requirement, so you can decide it’s time to find something to train them for. That’s too late. It’s about being ready for the new thing no later than when a substantial industry change starts to gain traction. A 30, 60, or 90 day delay / break in the ability to generate income can destroy the economy of many families, despite the best of intentions by that family to save, etc. We’re at the early stage of that as virus-related layoffs accelerate. Skilled people need to be ready to transition in advance. They can’t be trained overnight. The leading / bleeding edge folks will see the benefits early. They’ll quietly train their own people and implement these changes.

Not only do people need the income because they’ve got a mortgage to pay and kids to feed (etc), but there will be immediate needs to deliver on the commitments of companies that put these pieces of equipment in the field (and those who don’t). You can’t wait 60 or 90 days or longer for somebody to become expert enough to do the new work. Equipment breaks down all the time. It needs to be configured, transported, maintained, and deployed today. Companies at the leading edge of that transition will need trained people to do this work. Leaders need to help create the on-ramps that help them get there.

Change doesn’t care

Change doesn’t care about our feelings, our likes & dislikes, much less the tender underside of our comfort zone.

The pace of change is even less considerate. The key is not to fight it, but to leverage it. The one thing you can’t do is stop it.

Choose leaders who can handle change. Cultivate new leaders to engage with it.

Photo by Robert Gomez on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Management

Why employees leave

How well do you know the people on your team? I don’t mean things like their significant other’s name, their favorite food, the name of their dog, what breed of dog they have (if they have a dog), what their cat plays with, what their favorite candy is, or what they do on weekends. I’m not saying there isn’t value in knowing those things (as long as you actually care about the person). What I’m wondering about is are you in tune with the mindset, the needs, and aspirations of your team members.

Why they leave

Managers don’t often know an employee is going to leave until they give notice. You think “Sure, they kept it a secret”. Obviously.

At some companies, if they learn you’re looking for another job, they’ll fire you. For sensitive roles, it’s sensible security policy. Frequently, the mindset is “They’ve already decided to leave, so they’ve effectively already left, therefore, the quality / quantity of their work will suffer, or they will sabotage our business.” Stunning that they’d hire a person like that in the first place, isn’t it? Says a lot about their ability to evaluate people. And why’d you keep someone if you thought that?

When they leave, they’ll give you a reason, but it’s rarely the truth (ie: their manager).

There are opportunities too good to pass up (doing what they’ve always wanted), money that’s too good, & better commutes. You understand “do what I’ve always wanted”. It might be a reason you started your business. Sure, there’s independence & the fantasy of how much money you’d make, but most people don’t start a business to do something they hate.

So let’s rewind to why they left. Ideally, to the reason why they started looking in the first place. There’s something you know of that happened to this employee, that they experienced, or didn’t but should have. Maybe you talked to them about it but it still provoked them to start looking. If you handled it well, it’s possible they wouldn’t be looking.

Everyone else leaves?

Think about the last few people who left. Why’d they leave? Look at the timelines of their careers. If you back up, day by day, week by week, month by month… what event turned them? Something did.

Maybe it was a bunch of little things. Still, that one time, that one thing, whether small or not, that one thing did it. Next thought: “I think I’m going to look around.”

When that decision was made, it might have been when things were repairable. If the right conversation happened (or the wrong one didn’t), maybe that person would have written off that event. Instead, it was one more straw on the camel’s back. Perhaps the final one.

I don’t have time for this

Thinking you don’t have time for this? You’re right.

You don’t have time to search for new employees, hire and train them, spend months getting them up to speed, only to be exactly where you were months earlier.

Learn what’s going on with your people and how things are going before they’re frustrated enough to leave. Talk about their career goals.

Yes, money’s gonna come up. Ignore it & it becomes a problem. Same with opportunity. Even if the money & opportunity are good, people tire of being unsupported by their manager (whatever that means to them), having ethical problems ignored, & whatever else you never fixed.

It makes them leave.

Opportunity is here & there

Someone saw something in your employee that you didn’t see, saw & ignored, or saw & procrastinated because you needed them where they were – ignoring that they could’ve been more valuable to your team had you given them the opportunity someone offered. Opportunity they earned in part while working for you, perhaps as you trained them. Instead of leveraging that investment, grooming them & putting them into a better role that’s more valuable to you, something else happened.

Who else is in those shoes? Who would you hate to lose?

Is it because of their current responsibilities, or because of their potential? What has to happen for them to step into a better, more valuable role? Do they need more experience, training, or time on the job? If you haven’t discussed this with them, they’ll likely assume you don’t see or care about their future.

That’s your choice. Somebody else’s choice might be to recognize what they’re worth. Same choice you have.

Photo by Olivier Collet on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Entrepreneurs Leadership

Keep looking for lessons

The previous discussion about chain of command when leadership isn’t supporting their team properly generated a number of private inquiries and comments. One stood out, saying: “You sure run into a lot of broken businesses”. Perhaps so, since helping owners get their companies out of situations like that is one of the things I do. The other, which the last piece spoke to, is helping employers and employees understand each other.

Communication lessons

Employers and employees are stunningly adept at misunderstanding email messages and comments made to one another. They’re not alone. At least once a week, I’ll get an email from a client that asks me to explain what in the world I just said – not because I went too technical, but because I assumed too much. Maybe I remembered the lead up to the conversation better, worse, or differently than they did. Maybe I’m coming from a place that they’re not seeing. Maybe I misunderstood some part (or all) of our last conversation.

Employees and employers struggle with this. This week, a guy was ruffled because his team did something he asked – but in a different context than what he wanted. This happened because he didn’t put himself in their place.. in their mindset.

His people did the wrong thing because they don’t think like owners (hello – they AREN’T owners). They created the resource he asked for in the context of their work, rather than in the context of his.

Unless you explain the WHY, you’re unlikely to get the right WHAT.

Context means everything. Owners and employees are different. They must work harder to understand what each group is really, truly saying.

Ultimately, communication is a team sport. It’s a skill we first learn to do by crying and continue learning, teaching, and sometimes still crying, until the day we die. Which brings me to John Haydon.

Look for the teachers

I didn’t know John well. Like all but one person in the charitable world that I’ve encountered and served on national boards with over the last 20 or 25 years – I never met him. All of these nationally-known people know each other and have met for decades at conferences, on consulting gigs, etc – but that’s not really my work world.

I stumbled across John because of his connection with several of the folks involved in my online-only charitable board relationships. I remembered him and followed his work because of the wisdom of the things he taught, and perhaps a little because his son’s a Scout.

He was a teacher to executives, marketers, and others in the charitable world – an expert at communicating and teaching organizations how to care for the people who donate to their cause. He wasn’t simply good at showing people how to “get the message across”, but thinking about the people who would get your message and grooming that message to have the most impact possible to them. The messages were caring for, relating to, and encouraging them.

A little more than a week before he passed, he gave a very personal interview to Chris Brogan about his experience with cancer, and the conversations he was having with friends, family, and himself. Even in his last week of life, he was teaching his long-time friends and peers via a private Facebook group assembled to help his friends and family share memories with John, say their goodbyes, and eventually, deal with the inevitable.

I mention these things about John because there’s a lesson in there. Here’s a man most likely wracked with pain, knowing he’s facing death in mere days, yet he’s still helping his fellow man by passing along wisdom… on camera, in what was probably his last public act. Even then, he wasn’t done. His book “DonorCARE” is about to be published, so his teaching continues.

Looking for lessons

Those “broken businesses”, the not-so-broken ones, and the stories I tell about them are intended for one purpose: To pass along lessons to you. Sometimes these stories and their lessons fit what’s challenging you that week, sometimes they don’t.

A famous TV personality used to say “Look for the helpers.” To that I would add, “look for the teachers.” They might be a business’ behavior, the behavior of a leader, manager, employee, the staff at a business you frequent, or… a guy named John whom you barely know.

Keep looking.

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Categories
Employee Training Sales

Give your sales team a chance

Late last week I attended a pre-sales webinar for a major SAAS vendor. As a prospect, I’m somewhere in the “lead curation” stage. I need to learn more about the tool and the company. The presenter is reading the slides. They’re clearly unfamiliar with the presentation notes. You can tell when someone is reading text they haven’t read before, much as you can tell when they aren’t familiar with the material. They sound exasperated about it all – and I suspect they’re right to feel that way. I wondered if the presenter had been “pushed out on stage”.

Sales preparation matters

I felt sorry for the presenter because it seemed as if they’d been allowed (or forced) to present without sufficient preparation. Everyone involved was affected by this. The company lost out because the quality of the presentation distracted from the product’s content. The value of the webinar to the attendees was reduced because the presenter was stumbling over their words and speaking in a manner that didn’t convey their (presumed) expertise. Hopefully there was a post-presentation review with the presenter so they could practice, get more familiar with the notes / slides, and take the bumps out of their next effort.

While I’m not certain this was the presenter’s first time giving this presentation, we all have to have a first time. The importance of practice and presenting with others who can provide feedback is critical. As a manager / leader, you should be making sure that these practices happen, that constructive feedback loops exist, and that they are done in a way that helps everyone get better. These efforts benefit everyone involved, including the prospective customer.

We’ve all been injected into a situation on short notice. Thing is, we have to take it upon ourselves to make sure we’re well prepared. Perhaps the presenter was asked to do this at the last minute to replace someone who couldn’t be there, but that’s no excuse. It’s on management to make sure replacements are prepared to step in and keep things moving. Maybe your best presenter won’t be there, but you should be able to assure that a well-prepared presenter is available to represent the company. Likewise, it’s on professionals to be prepared for their time in the spotlight, particularly if they know that their responsibilities include taking on someone else’s role on short notice.

It’s just a neighbor calling.

A well-prepared salesperson from the webinar vendor called me a couple of weeks ago. They’re a Silicon Valley company, yet they chose to pretend they were from Somers. (For those reading this outside of Montana, Somers is a small lakeside town in NW Montana.)

The same thing happened a few weeks ago when I received a return call from an insurance guy in Nashville. Caller ID said he was calling from Billings (MT). Yes, this has been going on forever, but it puts your sales team at a terrible disadvantage. When I see a call coming from the Nashville area and I am expecting a return call from there (as I was this time), I’d pick up. If I’m not expecting a call from there, I’ll always let it go to voicemail because I handle almost all calls by appointment. When the insurance company called back, I ignored it because I wasn’t expecting a call from Billings. 

When I finally ended up speaking with the salesperson from Silicon Valley, I asked them point blank if they were from Somers. “No, I’m at the main office in San Jose.” Which of course prompted me to ask them why they fake their numbers and make it look like they’re from a place they’re unlikely to be from. He handwaved it off (nicely) by saying it’s just what the company does to try to get folks to pick up. What they don’t realize is that the reverse reaction is what they’re getting. In addition, the conversation starts with a topic like “Why are you faking who/where you are” rather than their product. 

Don’t set the tone for your interaction with a prospect with a lie. Prospects don’t need to be comforted by a local caller ID number, if that’s what you’re trying to do. It’s simply unbelievable that anyone thinks this is a good idea at time when robocalls are doing exactly the same thing. Is that the crowd you want to be associated with?

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Categories
Employee Training Leadership Management

Mental errors

So, this past weekend my alma mater’s football team visited Tuscaloosa. As with most guests of the University of Alabama football team, they came away with a loss. Despite losing by 41, it could have been worse. Really it could. The score didn’t really bother me – I mean, seriously – we’re talking about an unranked team vs the top ranked team in the country. We knew it was going to be ugly.

Coaching?

Even when you “know” your team is going to be clobbered, there are two things you don’t want to see. In fact, I spoke with a sportscaster friend from college about it shortly before kickoff. I mentioned that I’d like to see four quarters of motivated play, ie: no appearance of quitting or giving up, and four quarters without a bunch of stupid mistakes – ie: mental errors. Fortunately, we didn’t see the team giving up late in the game, despite a 40+ point deficit. Mental errors, however, were a problem.

We don’t generally expect major college athletes to commit mental errors week-in and week-out. If they’re a problem in a game, it happens, and you expect the coaching staff to spend some of the ensuing week’s training time to address them. It speaks to a coaching problem when these things happen repeatedly, particularly in consecutive games.

On two consecutive kickoff returns, two different kickoff returners made back to back junior high school football level errors – stepping out of bounds at the two yard line pursuing a ball they’d deflected, and catching a ball heading out of bounds inside the 10 yard line (rather than simply letting it go and getting it at the 20 yard line). Neither player appeared to be aware of their location on the field. I can’t recall the last time I saw this egregious an error of that type at the major college level, much less on consecutive kickoffs. It may not have affected the outcome this time, but it would against a different opponent. Unfortunately, these were not the only two mental errors – they’re simply the easiest ones to describe.

In a football game, you expect mental errors due to nervousness, fear, a pressure-filled situation, fatigue, and/or a lack of preparation. When you are down by 24 in the early first half, about all that’s left is the lack of preparation option. To me, that speaks directly to coaching. At this point in his tenure, there’s already the drumbeat of replacement – so fixing the preparation is essential. You can’t replace your team with better players (or players who fit better into your system) in the middle of the college season, but you can significantly impact their preparation. If you don’t, a lot of other things will likely go badly.

A tie to business?

Of course, there’s a connection to business. The situation speaks directly to hiring well, on-boarding, continuing education, mentoring, management, and leadership. Those things aren’t enough to eliminate mental mistakes, but they certainly help. The preparation that we didn’t see evidence of in last weekend’s game We all make mental mistakes in business situations.

The strategies that reduce or eliminate mental mistakes during the business day are the same ones as in football. Coaching, training, mentoring, and practice are all a part of preparation. Any one of them will not do the job. For example, you can stand at the front of the room and teach people, but until they get out in the field and do what they were trained to do, it’s extremely unlikely they will perform at a high level. Even when they do, practice and mentorship is essential.

An easy example? Your sales team. Some members of your team may not enjoy practicing sales calls with other staffers, or going over recordings of sales calls with a manager or an experienced, successful salesperson – but both practices have proven useful to developing expert salespeople.

It’s on the leader

While the team members are the ones making the mistakes, the responsibility rests largely with the leader. They set the tone and performance expectations, while deciding how much preparation of their team (or their staff) is enough.

Business leaders are all under some sort of deadline. Coaches can’t put off next Saturday’s game. Both have to field the team they have each day or each week. Both are responsible for making sure their teams are well-prepared. What can you do with your team to make sure they are better prepared for their next effort?

Photo by Mari Carmen Del Valle Cámara on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Management

Choose process over results?

Every time Alabama loses a starting skill position player (usually the QB), the world asks Saban the same question. Paraphrased, it’s always something along the lines of “Oh my, what a disaster. What can you do to avoid ruining your season?” Mind you, Alabama isn’t the only team that has this figured out, and they certainly aren’t the only team asked this question. As different as teams are, the ones who consistently succeed over long periods of time appear to have a similar solution. They recruit players that fit their system and they make sure every team member knows their system to the point that it’s second nature – regardless of the player’s skill and ability level. Every day, they choose process over results.

What that means is that these teams set the expectation that if you go into the game, you do the job you were trained to do. You’re trained. You know the system as well as anyone. As such, you aren’t surprised. You know the game plan. You don’t freak out when something goes wrong, probably because no one else is. You don’t panic. You simply use your talent and ability within the system you’ve learned. Like a successful business, these teams have built a system that isn’t going to fall apart due to a single point of failure.

Teams aren’t like businesses?

How different is that from hiring carefully and having good process management at your business? Of course, that’s a trick question. It isn’t different at all. The products and outcomes are different, but the work of coaching (training), process management, recruiting (hiring) and so on are roughly the same. One of the things that Saban always mentions is their process. Google “Saban process not results” to see what I mean. A lot has been written about their process and Saban’s often vague answers about what many perceive as a “secret”. Hint: Hard work isn’t a secret.

Some people think that these teams are like a machine, and that businesses that operate this way are as well. In some cases, you might hear comments as if the machine-like behavior is a negative – like all the team members are like robots and can’t think for themselves. That’s fear talking.

If your best salesperson gets the flu the day they’re supposed to fly out to your most important trade show or customer meeting of the year, is it a good thing that the rest of your salespeople know the product and the pitch as well as anyone? Or does that mean your people are bots? Does it mean your company is well-trained, consistent, resilient, or “a machine”? Maybe it means all four – none of which are bad in the right context.

The benefit of everyone knowing the process (processes, really) is that you’re rarely shorthanded. You might not have your best player on the field (or on the trade show floor, or on the phone), but you still have someone who works the same way and knows all the steps. That consistency is critical to improving quality from one end of your company to the other.

Teach / document to learn

The best practitioners of your process (or parts of your process) can teach it. If they can’t teach it, they don’t really know it. They might give you some chest puffery and get all “I don’t need to do that”, but that’s their ego talking. Every time you teach something, you learn it a bit more, a bit better, from a bit different angle. To move toward mastery of a subject, try teaching it. You may think you know it already, but as soon as newbies start asking foundational, basic, “topic 101” questions, you’ll likely realize that you don’t know it as well as you thought. It’s service to yourself, to your peers, and to your business.

Documentation has the same effect, but in a different way. When you document a process, you’ll find that the memorized steps are often left out in the first pass. When someone follows your documentation (think of it as “testing”), you’ll almost certainly discover little decisions or questions were omitted.

You may get some resistance to documenting your processes. Yet professional pilots who have flown for 30 years still follow a checklist. They do it for a reason. Under pressure or when we’re in stressful situations, we forget things. We’re human.

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Employee Training Entrepreneurs Leadership Management

Are you holding on too tight?

Have you ever driven something to the post office because then you’d be absolutely sure it was put in the right box and actually mailed? Seemed rational at the time, right? The biggest turning point in a business owner’s life is when they trust someone enough to let them do something the business owner used to do. Yes, bigger than deciding to start the business itself. It’s one of the most difficult achievements for owners because it’s driven by fear, an emotion as primitive as there is. This fear convinces us that no one else can do the work as well as we can, even when the task is unimportant but necessary.

We have a bias toward the illusion and value of control at least in part because we did everything when there was no one else to do it. We remember the good old days when we built it alone in our basement, kitchen table, garage, etc. We did it all, thumped our chests, and drank from the skulls of our competitors. Our fond memories tell us we were in control of everything. The reality was more likely daily firefighting in an environment where we were alone and nothing was truly in our control.

Control isn’t the secret sauce

We think control is an important and essential element to building and growing a company. We think this because it’s all we know. When we’re the only one doing the work – control of everything is the default behavior model. Over time, “control of everything” stakes its claim as one of the essential ingredients of our success comes to us simply because we were the only employee. That doesn’t mean it’s the ideal.

Delegating work is one of the hardest and most valuable skills a business owner can develop. We usually won’t admit to ourselves that being bad at delegating (or not wanting to delegate) is a product of our desire to preserve our illusion of control.

We convince ourselves to stay small with thoughts like these:

  • I built this thing myself when I discovered others weren’t doing this, or weren’t doing it well.” (until I delegate to the right person with the right details, assuming this was ever true, and of course the task is so critical that I MUST be the only one to do it. Except it usually isn’t that critical, it’s simply work that must be done.)
  • No one knows what we went through.” (and?)
  • No one works like an owner.” (which is understandable – they aren’t owners).
  • It’s faster to do it myself than to teach you how to do it.” (Except for the second through nth times, assuming you taught it properly)
  • Others don’t care like I do.” (even though they might – worst case, they care enough or in their own way. Again, they aren’t owners.)
  • So and so’s work isn’t perfect.” (Neither is yours)
  • I can always do it better than anyone else.” (Are you sure? Is 10% better worth not getting to that truly critical work that is of a nature that you really are the only one who can do it?)
  • No one but me has the twenty seven years of experience that’s necessary to do this work well.” (It isn’t usually necessary, we just think it is. If we use that experience to guide our training & delegation, someone else *can* do it as well.)

Control has limits

How many items can you carry at one time? At some point, you’ll either stop adding items, or you’ll start dropping things. Our minds have a similarly finite ability to control things. That “control” includes managing people, projects, relationships, much less doing the work our role demands of us.

Your leadership role requires your full attention. Would you prefer to lead your company well, or lead it poorly because your mental and physical energy is consumed by less important tasks other people can do?

Holding on too tight stifles growth. We had to hold tight when we were working alone, but it’s a serious liability when you have a team. The best NFL quarterbacks throw or hand the ball to someone else most of the time, despite most of then having great running skills. Your children won’t learn to walk if you never let them out of your arms.

An executive who works with famous bands and professional athletes regularly asks his clients how their work changed once they “went pro”. In both groups, the most prevalent answer was “having the time and mental space to focus solely on our music / on-field performance and the wants / needs of our clientele, without the distraction of little things that used to consume their time.

The fear of letting go of the control that we think helped us succeed when it was just us – is exactly the thing that keeps us small.

Hiring my assistant Lorena is one of the best decisions I ever made.
But, many entrepreneurs don’t know how to go about hiring one. (Myself included! I got lucky with Lorena!)
Many entrepreneurs don’t know where to look. They don’t know what to pay.
They don’t know WHO to trust.
But most of all, they don’t know HOW to trust.
They don’t how to let go of tasks they really need to let go of. They don’t know how to let go of control.
I get that. We entrepreneurs have skin (and blood and hair and sweat) in the game. We can’t take our eye off the ball or things slide into chaos in a hiccup.

A comment from Perry Marshall

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Management

Do they know they work for an airline?

A recent graduation had both sets of grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle flying from the Midwest into two different airports, converging on Spokane. On the morning of my mother’s flight through Dallas, a thunderstorm with a tornado-like attitude stretched from Austin to Missouri. My mother’s flight to Dallas took a circuitous path around New Orleans, past Houston, into Austin. After an hour in Austin, her flight left for Dallas and landed there too late to allow her to catch her connecting flight to Missoula. A re-route through Seattle changed her arrival in Missoula from 11am to midnight, making a 22 hour travel day. Her baggage was a different story.

We all have baggage

After all that, Mom’s bag didn’t make it to Missoula. Given that her rerouted flight terminated on a different airline & was booked to Kalispell by the original airline (later corrected by Alaska in Seattle), it wasn’t surprising.

I called Alaska baggage in Seattle the next morning. The data said the bag was in Missoula the night before, but that didn’t seem right. Even so, it required a visit to the airport – and that’s where the magic started.

Shawna (an Alaska gate agent) in Missoula took my details & filed a claim. She said the bag was en-route to Kalispell. Shawna sent instructions to return the bag to Seattle on the next flight, then forward it to Spokane since we were heading there to meet the rest of the family. Then Shawna took the first of several unexpected steps. She gave me her direct number in Missoula, telling me she’d be off in a few hours but someone else (whose name I forget) would help me if I called after she left for the day. She also wrote them a note to make sure they checked on the bag. Then she gave me the direct number for her peer in Spokane’s Alaska baggage office and the direct number for the Seattle office, just in case.

Expectations

My expectations were mixed. I’d had re-routed luggage before. Eventually, it finds me. The process is frustrating until the bag arrives. This was different. About noon, my phone rang. Trevor (Alaska baggage) said the bag was en-route to Spokane. He asked if I wanted to pick it up or have it delivered. He took my delivery address and said “Call me if it doesn’t arrive by seven” then he texted me an additional number as a fall back.

About six pm, I received a call from Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. The woman said the bag was out for delivery and would be delivered soon. About 15 minutes later, it arrived.

My bag delivery expectations were met. Despite having flown a good bit, I’ve never lost a bag. Today, a bag’s barcode is scanned so often that it would take odd circumstances to make one disappear without a trace.

My expectations of the people were a different story. I had never experienced such attention to detail and effort to make sure I always had a local phone number and a name to ask for when tracking down a bag. I was never on hold where “my call was important yet they were experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes” repeated incessantly. Instead, my calls were answered in a ring or two & always handled well.

Uncle!

The uncle arrived at midnight on the evening of the arrival of my mom’s bag. He came in on a different airline (not Alaska) but his bag didn’t. He spent much of the next day on hold with his airline’s central baggage office. They didn’t seem to know where his bag was or when it’d arrive. After dinner, I suggested he call Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. What could it hurt? He was skeptical, but called them anyway and, unlike my experience, had to leave a message.

Five minutes later, he received a return call from Alaska baggage. Even though his airline was unsure where his bag was, the woman said she had his bag. He could come pick it up or she would have it delivered. He’d have clean clothes for graduation in the morning.

I don’t know what Alaska does differently, but their people don’t seem to know they work for an airline. Does your team act like they work in your industry, or do they provide service to a higher standard?

PS: the Monday after all this happened, Mom received a discount code for a future flight “for her trouble”.

Photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Sales

The role of a salesperson

I recently took a short business trip to Southern California. I conveniently missed out on the single digit and sub-zero temperatures and harsh winds that chilly Montana week. As if winter was following me, my hosts found ice on their lawn furniture one morning during my visit. While there, my host served a really nice Cabernet Sauvignon. When I got home, I called my local wine specialist to see if they could get it – it was that good. When the salesperson answered, I asked if they carried the particular winery and vintage of the Cab. They replied, “We don’t have that one, but we have plenty of other cabs.” I then said, “I understand, but right now, I’m looking for this specific one…” – and before I could finish my sentence to ask if they could custom order it – they hung up.

Opportunity missed

While I appreciated the “we have plenty of other cabs” portion of the salesperson’s response, it’s a weak effort to fulfill the role of a salesperson: Help customers meet their goals / needs and if your goods / services fit those needs – sell them. If your products / services don’t fit their needs, think long term: Send them in the right direction so they still get some value from your employer. You might think that when Macy’s Santa in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” sends customers to another store it’s simply sappy old movie scripting. Perhaps it is, yet it’s also exactly what’s customers want and appreciate.

Customers value when your experts share their expertise to help them solve a problem. It’s exactly why Ace Hardware has (and promotes) the presence of “helpful hardware” people in their stores. When we enter a wine store, we expect the employees to know more about their wine (if not most wine) than we do. If you’re a local restaurant’s sommelier that won’t be true, but most of us aren’t.

Why do we enter a particular type of business? We’re fond of the product / service. We’ve gained more expertise than most over time & enjoy sharing it. People come to experts because they don’t have the time and perhaps funds) to become one – or they need expert advice soon. We have a problem to solve or a need to fulfill. Most of us are happy to exchange payment for that expertise or purchase advice. That’s why I called the wine store.

The problem with the wine store call was the answer I didn’t receive, not the answer I received. I wasn’t asked if they could try to order it for me. They didn’t offer to check with their distributor and get back with me. They didn’t even finish the obvious part of “we have plenty of other cabs” with “such as this, this and this.” I called them because the store doesn’t have stock on their website (with or without pricing). Sidebar: At first, I thought it might be illegal to list wines on your website in MT, given our love/hate relationship with our sometimes inane alcoholic beverage laws. Nope. I eventually managed to find a Montana wine store who listed specific in-stock wines on their website.

Wanted: A well-trained salesperson.

These days, the difference between a great salesperson and a good one doesn’t really matter in most situations – including this one. It’s tough to hire great salespeople because they can work anywhere. In some environments, they’ll make more than the CEO / owner. At a retail store, a passable salesperson is one who knows the product. A good one knows the products (maybe loves the products too) and makes an effort to help the customer solve the problem that brought them to your store. This doesn’t happen simply by having people fill out a W-4.

It takes training. Not one day. Not a sheet of paper with a checklist, though that can serve as a cheat sheet in the early going. Hire people who like the game you’re playing, and like the people you’re playing it with. Make them more valuable to you by training them to be better salespeople of what you sell. They should know the goods and services better than most customers. They should know why people should choose this over that. Sure, they might move on someday. In the meantime, an untrained or under-trained salesperson reflects on you and your store, not on them. You know what breeds loyalty in your customers? Knowing that there will always be a considerate well-trained expert in your store.

Categories
Employee Training Employees Hiring Management

Team players make the team better

We joke, perhaps uncomfortably, that some people “don’t play well with others“. Others are considered average at being team players. Finally, there are the folks who seem to mesh with any group. The best of them thrive at team dynamics and seem to improve the team, rather than simply becoming a part of the team.

While this is obvious, we often hurry to hire someone. Every time you get in a big hurry to “get that hire done”, there’s a pretty good chance that you & your team will pay for your impatience. If you’re in a hurry for a critical position, look internally for a solid team player who can grow into the open role. Showing that people with these skills get good opportunities sends a message to both the person getting the role and their peers. The upside is that you get an existing team member with known skills into a (presumably) more important position. The role they leave open is presumably a less important role, or perhaps a role that’s easier to fill.

What do team players look like?

It’s easy to say “hire team players”. Getting consistently good at finding them from a pool of candidates is another story. The real work is in identifying them during your interview process. During your interviews, everyone has their persona “all shined up”. Be sure to dig deeper and find signals that indicate what they’re really like when the shine wears off. What does a team player look like? How do you get them to reveal their true selves and reveal what they aren’t?

Much is revealed through conversation. So what do you do? Start by asking people about teams they’ve been on. What do they think makes a good team member? Why? Why are those things good indicators? How does the team benefit from those characteristics? Why do you think that’s important? Channel your inner four year old: “Why? Why? Why?

Knowing what a candidate values in a team member is good, but it’s critical to know why they value them. Their answers reveal their maturity as a team member & team leader.

Do you know your team’s “human whisperers”. If you don’t – ask around. Your team knows who can read people well. They might not be the senior managers who normally interview people. Involve them anyway. They’re the ones who can read what others cannot. They’ll often pull stories out of a candidate that they’d never typically share – both good & bad. They might be less assertive than your “typical” interviewer, but don’t cut them out of the process. You need to know how a candidate communicates with people who aren’t hard charging extroverted managers. These “shy” or “quiet” folks are often very good at assessing what’s behind someone’s “interview face”. Let them meet the candidate off-site for lunch or coffee at a place that has table service so you can see how they treat wait staff.

What about those who aren’t team players?

Regarding the folks who “don’t play well with others”, you have two choices. Give them a chance to change, with milestones and a timeline, or help them find their next career home. Some people are convinced that they can’t work for someone else and that the only way for them to be happy & thrive is to work alone. Only a hermit lives & works alone. Even the most fiercely independent loner will eventually discover that, along with customers and vendors, they must work together as a team – even if they otherwise work alone.

The person who refuses to learn how to become a team player simply has to go. You aren’t doing someone a favor by keeping them around when they are unhappy and/or don’t fit well with your team. These changes feel difficult, if not horrible, but not as bad as things will be if you do nothing. Making these changes through training and/or departures is what your team needs and deserves. It’s also better for the person who isn’t a team player and doesn’t show interest in becoming one. They deserve a chance to get it together, or find a place where they do fit. Some take to training / mentoring and transform themselves. Some don’t. Sometimes a change helps them figure out the sort of team they need, or that they need to make some changes to become the sort of person a team benefits from.