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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.

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Creativity Employees Entrepreneurs Management

Adapt to build security, stability, & certainty

A lot of the concern you see from people right now is rooted in a loss of certainty. Ask a few business owners why they started their business and you’ll likely find security, certainty, or the desire to have more control as their reasons for starting a business. Maybe it’s the feeling that they finally have some security (or an increase in security) thanks to making some extra cash each month. It could be based on having the ability to “take a punch”, ie: withstand an unexpected week away from work, or some other temporary negative impact on your income.

Stability and security

For a business owner, one of the first steps in this path is being able to pay yourself consistently. For some, it was the ability to make payroll without nervously waiting on sales to come in before the end of the payroll period. Perhaps it was the ability to offer your team the benefits they’d expect at a larger employer. All of these are steps along the path to sleeping better at night as business owner, and at some point, as an employer.

Your employees crave the same type of stability, security, and certainty in their lives. For the employee, stability means knowing you’ll have work for the next couple of months. Having retained earnings available feels pretty good right now if you’re an employer. Perhaps you can assure their future for the next few months. Or maybe you’re as worried as they are.

Now is a great time to discuss ideas they’ve had that you might not have had time for. A weak owner with little vision will simply lay them off without any effort to find an interim solution.

If your business is slow, your sales and marketing efforts need stronger efforts. For those who never had to sell before (some businesses don’t), you might have to start. You might have to “beat the bushes”.

Some of you may never have needed to do marketing before. Others can’t survive without it. Adapting means you might have to do some things you’ve never done before. How we adapt to change says a lot about us.

What adaptation looks like

Adaptation takes many forms. A high-end, upscale, highly-regarded restaurant in Seattle closed a week or two ago, but not for good. They decided it wasn’t responsible to be a gathering place for a while. It’s possible that they may have had no choice in the matter if their clientele stayed away for a few months.

Rather than let fate, luck, or circumstances determine their destiny, they took things by the reins. Their current solution is to create three businesses. One, a food truck type of business for simple breakfasts (coffee and bagels) and another food truck type business that serves lunch. Finally, they created a service that creates family dinners to carry out and take home (to go only, no on-site service).

Once things return to normal, they might leave those three new businesses open and reopen their fancy restaurant. In the meantime, they’ve kept their people working while providing food services that some people need.

Create new certainty

These are the kind of ideas worth discussing at your office or shop. As an example, if you provide raw materials (whatever that means) for certain clients, perhaps those clients could use assemblies or packaging of your raw materials (including delivery) in a form that allows their team to work at home in their garage to build / assemble / etc the same things they build at their shop. This type of idea may not fit your business, or your clients’ business, but an adaptation might. Rethink about what you do, what they buy & how you can help them.

Think about every step in your process & theirs. How are you involved now? How can you shortcut the process or provide partial results along the way? Brainstorm possibilities with them. You might find solutions that make sense for both parties under today’s conditions. They might also fit afterward. Even if they don’t, the solution have value to others.

Can-do thinking that built resilient companies in the past & can do so again. Leaders step up when the time is right. They don’t wait. They don’t need permission. They just lead.

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Customer relationships Employees Entrepreneurs

A hero always has work

We talked last week about getting started and that one of the challenges of getting started is what to do first. Sometimes, knowing who you’re going to serve makes it easier to decide what to do next (Remember: “next” doesn’t mean forever). A good question I heard years ago that’s useful for narrowing your focus and providing some direction in this respect is “Who do you want to be a hero to?” That’s an important question because it does a nice job of narrowing down the possibilities of the work that you’re considering. It also reminds you of your “reason why”, ie: what fuels the personal satisfaction that you get from helping the people that you eventually become a hero. Still, not everyone can relate to the hero thing.

”I’m not a hero”

You might not think you can be a hero, but I suspect that’s because you’re thinking of heroism in the context of a mythical superhero with superpowers, or of a real hero, like a firefighter who risks their life to enter a burning building to rescue someone who’s trapped.

There are other ways to be a hero.

Ever been disappointed by a vendor? Then you know that a vendor that a customer can always, always, always depend on is a hero.

Ever had a consultant who was there every time you desperately needed them? You know what a hero does.

Ever had an insurance agent help you navigate a maze on one of the worst days of your life? You know what a hero does.

Ever had a manager you could always depend on? Who always had your back? You know what a hero does.

Every business has work for heroes.

Who are you a hero to?

Spending time working with the people you want to be a hero to helps confirm you’re in the right market. It can also tell you your market is exceedingly difficult to break into.

Sometimes that’s because the market’s already crowded or the people you want to be a hero to are difficult to serve. Maybe they’re of a one off nature, so it’s hard to build a good economic model from that sort of solution. That doesn’t mean give up on that solution, but it may indicate you’ll need to be more inventive, clever (etc) than you might have expected.

This may mean that you have to spend more time with the people in your target market, which frankly is always beneficial, even if you’re going in the wrong direction. While working directly with the customer you want to be a hero to, you are going to learn much faster. If you’re just starting out, then it makes sense to try the first thing that catches your eye. You’ve got plenty of time. Your very first “real” job may not have anything to do with a career and career path you end up on – and that’s OK.

Change canoes to be a hero

Likewise, just because you’re 55 or 65 and have been a CPA for decades doesn’t mean that you can’t decide to be a fly fishing guide. If you’ve got the skills, and you have the heart and mind of a teacher, and you’re willing to do some marketing and networking, then you can probably do it. What matters is that you want to do it badly enough to not let that desire sit unused on the shelf.

I saw this in a young man for a better part of a decade. He was doing well in a job that he didn’t necessarily like, and was advancing in a company that didn’t appear to have much respect or empathy for their people. It didn’t seem that they cared about their employees as much as they should have.

A decade of percolation on the thought of “what interests me” finally came to a head, and when the time was right, he made a choice. He’s since narrowed that choice and is focused on being a hero to “his people”. That’s kind of how it works for all of us whether you’re 25 or 65.

Life puts opportunities in front of us. More often than not, the key is stepping out of our comfort zone long enough to grab the opportunity to be a hero to someone.

P.S. Everyone has at least one hero story. 5 or so years ago, the owner of a company was going to send a handful of people to a very large client, perhaps their largest. This Fortune 10 company was not to be messed around with. You wanted your best people “on the field” at this place.

At the owner’s request, I suggested a few people for the trip. One of the suggestions provoked an “Are you sure???” response from the owner. I told him “This guy is going to show up in a suit, be incredibly polite, take notes, ask good questions and will never embarrass us.” The owner was surprised. He didn’t see that side of this guy (and this wasn’t a suit-wearing company), but I’d seen this guy on the playing field in the past. As expected, he did exactly as I described.

At the very least, heroes do what’s expected of them, even when no one’s looking. It matters to them, even if it doesn’t matter to you.

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Employees Entrepreneurs Ideas Improvement

Feeling stuck?

Without a plan and a strategy to implement that plan, we’ll always be slaves to economic factors beyond our control. – Anonymous

I don’t know where I originally found that quote. I keep a list of quotes in Evernote and this one was dated 10 years ago. Regardless, it makes a good point, particularly if your job and financial situation have you feeling like you have no control over what happens next.

You do have some control, though it may seem so small at the moment that you might discount it as meaningless. Don’t.

Most people feel stuck at some level, but you may feel like you’d prefer someone else’s “brand” of stuck to yours. Most likely, there’s someone who would prefer your current situation to theirs. In both cases, we’d prefer to extract ourselves from the current level of stuck, whatever that might be.

Why “stuck”?

While the idea of “being a slave to economic factors” seems like a fairly clear message, I prefer to be a bit more precise with my words. The “being a slave” simply isn’t accurate, and it ignores rather vast differences between actually being a slave and the pressure, inconvenience, and discomfort of feeling subject to the whims of the economy.

An obvious difference: Your boss isn’t going to shoot you if you quit working for their company, even if you can’t financially afford to quit. While you and your family will probably suffer substantial inconvenience and discomfort until a few months after things get back to whatever normal is, it’s not the same as being a slave.

“Feeling stuck” is a more accurate description, isn’t comparable to slavery, and is relatable. If someone comments about their job, their boss, a downturn in their industry, their pay, the impact of a new tariff, etc – they feel like they have no choice. They’ll almost certainly answer “Yes” if you ask them if they feel stuck.

Figure out what’s next

One of the mistakes we make when we’re stuck is that we look at the ultimate destination as the place we want to be and declare that our goal without considering all the destinations we’ll pass through on our journey to that goal.

There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re really good at adapting. When we take a punch, we usually change our behavior. While we may not avoid taking another punch, we prefer not to take the same one repeatedly.

We’re going to have to tolerate milestones along the way. It’s not much different from earning a new skill. A year from now, we’ll laugh or shake our heads at how naive / uninformed our original grandiose thoughts were. It’s much the same as when we look back on our abilities of a few years ago and realize how much we’ve learned.

We may decide somewhere along the journey that we want something a little bit different. The industry might change, we might select a slightly more interesting, appreciative, or better-funded customer segment. We may find something else that attracts us and makes our direction veer a bit to the left or right.

I don’t know the first step!

When I said figure out what’s next, I don’t mean the ultimate goal. Just get started and take the first step. Until you do, you’re still stuck.

That’s how journeys work.

Even if you don’t know what the first step of your journey should be, you can’t let that stop you from taking it.

Start by reverse engineering a path from where you want to end up back to where you are now. What’s the last milestone before you get to your ultimate goal? What has to happen before you get to the next to that milestone? Repeat that process until it leads all the way back to where you are now.

Now you have a first milestone and for now, a set of directions. It’s possible this set of directions and milestones won’t change. It’s critical that you expect change along the way. Your needs, wants, and motivations may change. That’s OK.

Being stuck is hard

There are many unknowns. There will be time spent outside your comfort zone. You’ll feel pressure from family, parents, peers, etc. Most of them aren’t the ones who are stuck. You are. It’s your goal, not theirs.

Getting unstuck is hard work. So is being stuck. Which would you prefer?

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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
Employees Leadership

Shadow leadership

This past weekend, I was listening to an employee share what to them was a collaborative way to solve a problem with the behavior of their customers. These employees organized a meeting among themselves because they weren’t getting sufficient support from their leadership regarding the behavior of their customers. This behavior is a pretty important factor in the successful outcome of the employees’ work.

The interesting thing about this meeting is that the supervisor of these employees is the second-most senior leader in the entire company. This person was not invited to the meeting. In part, they seem to be creating the problem by not carrying their weight leadership-wise, but it’s more complex than that. Remember, part of the role of leadership is supporting your employees and removing roadblocks from their path.

To be sure, some of those roadblocks are the employees’ responsibility. In this particular situation, that’s not the case. The unfortunate thing about this second in command is that they’re essentially first in command on a day to day basis for everything except legal and finance.

The second in command is failing to handle a sizable part of their leadership role because neither the number one leader nor the Board of Directors appear to be fulfilling some parts of their leadership role.

Danger has trailing indicators

When it comes to work that impacts metrics, KPIs, “your numbers”, etc, a lack of effort on your part shows up fairly soon and becomes obvious. When your lack of effort involves leadership, it’s harder to find numbers to tell the tale. Poor leadership has a trailing indicators. You know it when you see it – but if it’s coming from you, the metrics that inform you that you’re not getting it done might not be visible for months or even years.

If you’re not taking care of your responsibilities, someone else has to pick up the slack. Work piles up and metrics trend negative when this happens with measurable work. A lack of effort on work that’s not easy to measure is more difficult to see, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t piling up. In some cases, it’s rolling downhill to your employees and negatively impacting their work.

There’s not enough time, energy, and/or mental bandwidth to do that extra work. This is particularly challenging when the work is not the role of these employees (not within their authority) and/or it involves work they haven’t been trained for, such as leadership. In some cases, leadership duties may even involve work your team cannot legally perform.

The mental bandwidth to get that work done tends to be much higher than the typical bandwidth required for that employee to do their job. It’s very stressful to do your boss’s job, particularly when you have no authority to do so. Your team knows this can come back to bite them, but they’re often forced to make the least negative choice.

Shadow leadership is often born of neglect

We discussed “shadow IT” some time ago. Shadow IT is born when a company’s IT group is such a pain to work with, and is so difficult to get work out of for one reason or another, that a department becomes their own IT staff. They do their own purchasing and their own organization because they have expectations to fill. They have work to get done and they cannot afford to wait for an unresponsive IT department to do their job.

Shadow leadership has similar roots.

When I talked to this employee about their organization, it was clear that there aren’t too many things that I can do to help them because of the nature of the organization itself. I mentioned that if I was on the board of directors, I’d want to know about these situations.

The number one and number two leaders work at the pleasure of the board of directors. If directors don’t know that the employees are being forced to take on duties they have no business dealing with, the board can’t take steps to address the issue. An uninformed board of directors will never see that this unmeasurable work isn’t getting done by reviewing the monthly / quarterly reports they receive from leadership – not because they’re hidden, but because they have no metrics.

Until someone steps up

After numerous conversations about this situation, I suggested that this group of employees needs to find a way to get this scenario in front of one of the board of directors.

Once the director understands the situation with the second in command, they can discuss it with the rest of the directors, determine if the concern is legitimate, assess if the situation is being interpreted correctly, and determine what (if any) action to take.

It’s important to note that this is not me suggesting that employees go outside the “chain of command” as a first attempt to solve the problem. Anything but that, in fact. It’s critical that attempts to communicate this situation to anyone in your chain of command are done with humility because you don’t know what you don’t know.

I already know that this team has repeatedly attempted to address the situation with the number two leader (their manager), but have been turned away because that leader doesn’t have time to deal with the customer behavior issues these employees face. Other evidence presented to me indicates this (in part) prompted by a consistent lack of leadership from the number one leader, who is on their way out the door and as such appears to be treading water until their exit.

Leaders interested in preventing a situation like this should be asking their people what’s keeping them from getting their work done. That’s not the same as “Why aren’t you getting your work done”, or “Why aren’t you getting enough work done?”, or similar questions that won’t yield the right answers.

Questions like “What obstacles consistently come up that impede your work?” and “What work that’s outside of your role / authority is falling to you and/or is creating a situation that’s keeping you from being as effective as you want to be?” not only make it clear you aren’t asking about work output, but that you’re looking for environmental and process-related clues. You want to find out what’s getting in the way of their work and what’s taking time away from the work your team knows they’re accountable for. That’s part of what you’re accountable for.

Some leaders won’t ask

Unfortunately, some leaders won’t ask these questions. As employees, you have to try the chain of command. It’s the right thing to do and it’s what your leaders deserve, until it doesn’t work. It’s what you would expect of your team in the same situation. Still, it doesn’t work.

If you’ve made a legitimate effort to communicate these problems up the chain of command and the situation continues, then you have at least three choices.

  • Get over it. It’s possible that leadership knows more about this than you think. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask leadership to help you understand their decision so that your concern about it can be abated. They may have more data / context than you. Some of it may involve information that cannot be shared, but there is almost always a way to explain a decision to allay the team’s concerns.
  • Leave. Choose other employment / retire / start your own company.
  • Break the chain of command. Skip over a level or two of the chain of command and explain why you’re doing so when you report your concerns, making sure to be clear that you’ve already (perhaps repeatedly) attempted to use the chain of command. How you approach this makes all the difference. It must be clear (and true) that your concerns are for the good of the company and that you’re reporting these concerns because you don’t see any alternative. This can’t be about a class of personalities or egos. Again as in the first option, you need to be aware that you might simply be wrong or not have all the information needed to understand the situation.

Situationally aware

Leaders, all this is on you. your employees can only do so much, because there are some of you who will ignore them. Others will lose their mind with anger when they go around you because they felt they had no choice. You’re the one who may fire somebody who goes around the chain of command because your chain of command isn’t working. Employees know that. And yet, they will risk telling you anyway because the good of the company is that important to them.

You should consider that before you decide it’s a good idea to fire the people who had the gumption to tell you about something that’s not working.

Leadership isn’t an innate skill we magically wake up with. It’s learned. In fact, your team is learning it from you every day. Is your behavior a good instructor?

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Categories
Banking Employees Entrepreneurs

Boomer business for sale

I noticed a decades-old retail business that’s closing soon. There’s no “For Sale” sign in the window. The newspaper article about the upcoming closure says nothing about the owner’s desire or attempts to sell it. It appears they’re simply closing. I suspect their staff are looking for a new job. Later that day, I was listening to a podcast discussing data showing that 60000 U.S. boomers retire every day and that boomers own 57% of the 28.7 U.S. businesses. The impact of closing rather than selling a “boomer business” will not go unnoticed by local economies.

This boomer business data comes from the U.S. Census, Social Security Administration, the SBA, the BLS, and the financial industry. Per a JP Morgan Chase analysis of U.S. Census data, 48% of the people U.S. employees work at a small business. 18% of them work at a small business with fewer than 20 employees.

Boomer business closures

If you combine the 60000 per day figure with the 57% figure, what you get is a picture of a massive group of businesses that will change hands over the next decade or so. The troubling thing is that the sale of the business isn’t the only option.

Many business owners choose to close up shop and walk away. Perhaps they don’t have children who wish to take over the business. Maybe they don’t feel their “boomer business” is worth anything to anyone else, even though it’s probably producing an income. They may not be interested in dealing with the hassle of finding a buyer who can pay the price, much less the effort required to train the new owner.

At first, I thought this apparent hesitance to sell and train was because a long-term business required very specific, and perhaps disappearing, skills. Some fit this profile, but the JP Morgan analysis shows that 51% of small businesses are less than 10 years old, so many likely aren’t limited by that problem.

Over 99 percent of America’s 28.7 million firms are small businesses. The vast majority (88 percent) of employer firms have fewer than 20 employees, and nearly 40 percent of all enterprises have under $100k in revenue.

JP Morgan Chase analysis of U.S. Census data

Why this matters

There’s somewhere around 155 and 160 million Americans employed. I know, the numbers are weirdly calculated, politicized (as always), and may count people with multiple part time jobs as more than one person.

There are probably other problems with the numbers, but for the sake of discussion, let’s assume they’re inflated by 20% – a wide margin of error. That means roughly 128 million individuals have at least one job. Interestingly, a little research after the first draft of this found a Statistica report showing that same 128 million figure for full time employment in the U.S.

If 99% of the employers of these people are small businesses, and 57% (percentage owned by boomers) of them have owners nearing retirement in some form, there are a lot of jobs at some sort of risk.

You can’t simply take 57% of 99% of 128 million, of course. What we can do is accept that it’s reasonable that a very large number of people work for businesses that will either close or change hands over perhaps the next 10 years.

With the average number of employees across all businesses being fewer than 20 (16 is one of the averages I saw from BLS.gov data), every time a business sells or changes hands, 15 jobs are at some level of risk (on average, assuming one owner is an employee).

That’s a significant impact on employment, even if these calculations are off by 50%.

SBA/SUSB data shows about 115,000 businesses in Montana – a number growing by ~3400 per year. About 51% remain open after five years.

If half of them close/sell over the next decade, that affects about 118,000 employees. While these numbers are rough, it’s reasonable that resulting life upheaval will ripple through local economies.

Collaboration required

Owners: Consider a creatively-structured sale. No matter how it pencils out, you gain little by closing the doors.

Employees: Tell the owner you’re willing to keep going. Look into how the business can be kept running. Someone who already owns a business is a good candidate.

Locally-owned banks: Is it OK for these businesses to disappear? No bank understands and can serve these folks like you can.

All three groups: Look for the win-win, rather than the fantasy outcome. Everyone can be rewarded by a successful transition – including the community’s economy.

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Categories
Business culture Employees Management

Self-healing teams

Last week we talked about applying self-healing tactics to the tools, systems, and infrastructure that are a critical path to a productive business day. We also discussed ways to make downtime less of a factor for the tools, systems, and infrastructure that can’t self-heal.

While these efforts are useful, creating resiliency and the ability to “take a punch” aren’t limited to tools, systems, and infrastructure. Your team can also benefit from self-healing approaches.

Preemptive self-healing

While self-healing is a valuable tactic for saving time & money, and improving productivity regarding your tools, systems, and infrastructure, people are a bit more complex. People are a bit harder to heal, plus the capacity for self-healing varies a good bit between individuals.

Teams, on the other hand, benefit a great deal from preemptive self-healing. Most of this comes out of extreme care taken when hiring. The same level of care is needed when making team assignments. If you look back over time at the problems you’ve discovered on your teams, you’ll likely find some consistency in the ingredients of the turmoil you dealt with.

You might have someone who simply isn’t a culture fit. Or they could’ve been a jerk. Maybe both.

You might have inadvertently mixed personality types that simply don’t work well together. There’s some value to “You folks need to figure it out”, but it’s still on you to monitor the situation and make sure the effort is being made. It’s not all that unusual to have two people on a team who are solid, qualified people who don’t jell well with one another for whatever reason.

Whatever drama that creates is not likely worth whatever you think you’re going to gain by forcing them to work together. Sometimes, one of them just has to go. These decisions aren’t easy. It’s not unusual to find that a top performer is also the one who doesn’t jell with the rest of the team.

Toxic top performers

To that end, if you have top performers who are creating problems with the rest of the team, and the problems aren’t something you’ve been able to resolve – sometimes that top performer has to be the one to leave.

We’ve all seen someone who is great at what they do – and lousy at teamwork, or arrogant, or disrespectful, etc. Remember how you felt when they did whatever they did and management did nothing because they were a “top performer”. Now that you’re in charge, are you going to be that manager, or that owner?

No one is irreplaceable.

Read that again. No one is irreplaceable. That doesn’t mean losing them will be a pain-free experience. It may not be. Even so, the damage these people can cause often negates their performance. They can drag down the rest of your team, destroy morale, and prevent others with similar (or even better) skills from blooming because those people simply don’t want to deal with your top performer.

They reveal management’s true self. When the top performer (at least metrics-wise) does things no one else could get away with, it sends a message about what’s important to the company’s ownership: “It’s more important to bring x to the table than it is to adhere to the company’s culture, rules, whatever.

Similarly, it also sends the message that if you can do X better than anyone else, you can get away with anything. Is that really what you want to represent as a manager / owner?

Self-healing performance

A real top performer doesn’t bring a bunch of baggage to work and spray it all over their peers. They don’t aggravate, emasculate, or reduce the performance of the rest of the team. Just the opposite, in fact. A true top performer not only produces like no one else on your team, but they also make the team better by making each individual better.

They teach. They mentor. Their behavior makes people want to work with (or for) them. People trust them.

On teams where this isn’t how you’d describe your top performers, you’ll often find people and/or teams pulling in different directions – even when trying to achieve the same goal. At some point, your company is going to pay the price for that.

Be very careful who you hire and how you build teams. Don’t forget to be the kind of top performer every team member wants to work with.

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Categories
Employees Hiring

The best person for the job

You don’t have to look far to find someone lamenting that they can’t find good people. There are any number of questions you can ask to figure out why they’re having trouble finding someone. You might ask them about their pay, the benefits, or the stability of the work schedule. Depending on the job they’re trying to fill, you might ask them where their people live. I’m guessing they might not have been asked that question before – and it isn’t applicable to every business. Some businesses don’t have the luxury of hiring team members from a faraway place. They make things or must use equipment that’s here, now, so the people involved have to be here, now. However, these companies may have work that doesn’t have to be done by someone in the local office, and sometimes, the opening is for a role that’s not easy to fill with an experienced local person.

Look, I know you want to hire local, and I get that, but sometimes a great local person for a specific role isn’t available. This is particularly likely in rural areas – but oddly enough, the person you need may live in a different rural area. If you need someone with specialized skills, they may not be easy to find until you expand your search beyond your town or county. Maybe they live 100 miles south or 1500 miles east. Somewhere out there, a qualified, experienced person exists who needs work, and can work remote. In some cases, they’re dealing with a situation that makes it almost impossible to work under “normal conditions.” Maybe they can work all day, but they can’t leave the house until another family member comes home. Most of us know someone who has a family member who is aging or otherwise needs someone in the house with them. They may not be a constant 24 hour a day caregiver, however. Maybe they simply need to make three meals a day and help their relative keep track of meds. What kind of loyalty do you think is created when you give steady work to someone in that situation?

Where they are isn’t who they are

Stop using the word remote to describe people who work in a different physical location. It doesn’t matter if they work in a corner of their bedroom, or in a shop they created from a rented self-storage space on the other side of town. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cat on their lap most of the day, or a dog at their feet. They’re either part of your team or they aren’t. You didn’t hire them because of the cat or the dog. (Not entirely, anyhow.) You didn’t hire them because you could save $125 a month on additional office expenses (phone, power, 100 sq ft of office space, etc). They were hired because you needed someone to produce a result. You chose them because of their qualifications and specific experience to produce a result, so why undermine them with “Yeah, but they work remote, so….”. 

Do you call our in-office employees “Local workers” or “in-house workers” or “non-remote workers”? Of course not. Adding “remote” unnecessarily differentiates them from team members who aren’t. You might think this is nothing, but the things managers / leaders say about other team members aren’t lost on your people. They may not react around you, but I guarantee they heard what you said. These signals tell your staff how to think about these folks and their “situation”.

Is it really surprising that this would happen when you don’t treat all of your staff members the same way? Until you stop internally classifying these folks as different, lesser, “special”, etc simply because of their location, why would anyone else? The team members around you pick up on subtle comments (whether they are digs or not) about their peers who work / live elsewhere. 

Positioning them like that tells the rest of the team that we should feel differently about them. It serves no purpose, and in fact, such comments undermine them in the eyes of those who hear you make those comments. Why would Jerry trust a co-worker who lives somewhere else when you’re regularly making comments about Bill working in his underwear? Joking or not, it sends a message about Bill, no matter what he wears when he’s working – regardless of the quality of his work. Undermining Bill makes a subtle statement about your hiring judgement, if not your judgement as a whole. It doesn’t help build a unified team. Is that what these comments are designed to accomplish?

Working with remote employees can be different, but it doesn’t have to be. The best thing you can do to is treat your local and remote people the same and involve them in everything possible. Remote work is…. work.

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