Categories
Employees Leadership Small Business

Adaptable to change?

Last week, we discussed ways that employees could make themselves more valuable to their employer and thus, more likely to keep their job. These were focused on how many owners / managers look at their team when things are tight. When things are tight, reducing expenses is always on the table – and rightly so.

We see this done poorly by large corporations on a regular basis. The news will mention that some large company laid off 30,000 workers at one time. It’s hard not to wonder who is managing a business that suddenly figured out they had 30,000 “extra” people. A company doesn’t often find itself in this situation overnight and it’s rarely a secret inside the company when you’re on the way there. Sure, there may be changes happening in your market, but you don’t wait to take action until your only next step is letting 30,000 people go. A company’s leadership shows whether they are adaptable to change, are stuck in denial, or somewhere in between.

That gets us back to keeping your job. One of the angles I didn’t discuss last week was that the likelihood of your continued employment (read: value to your employer) may depend on your demonstrated adaptability to change.

Change never stops

It’s a permanent fixture. Some will pretend nothing has changed or will attempt to take their company back to some magical time in the past, but they are fooling themselves. And yet, these folks exist.

Look back 10 or 20 years in your industry. Has nothing in your business changed? Even the most “primitive” supposedly low-tech businesses have changed in some way over the last couple of decades. How you as an employee respond to changes is everything. Your ability to adapt to change is central to your value to a company. This responsibility to be adaptable doesn’t end there. More than ever, your responsibility extends to your own career.

What do employees see?

When you look back at businesses that failed – regardless of size – one of the major turning points was their inability to recognize change – or their outright denial of approaching changes.

If you see a lack of response to clear and obvious changes in your employer’s market, you’d better be aware of what the company is doing to deal with these changes. If nothing appears to be happening, ask – carefully – about the company’s perspective is on a change that’s become obvious to you.

Don’t position it as criticism. You may not know what has been researched, decided upon, or planned in response to the change. The situation may be top of mind for your company’s leadership.

You may be able to detect this during your conversation. It may become clear that they recognize it and are planning (or taking) action to deal with it.

Alternatively, you may get a vague answer to your question about this change. You may be told “Good question, we’ll talk about that in our next full staff meeting. Thanks for bringing it up.” As long as those gatherings (virtual or otherwise) happen reasonably often, have patience and take action based on how that discussion goes.

On the other hand…

If your question is dismissed as if you don’t know what you’re asking, or you get a response indicating the conversation is over, you need to think about what this change really means. Maybe you misread it. Maybe they misread it. Either way, you need to find out which it is.

Look around and find out how it is affecting your competitors – not just locally, but in a handful of places. You may have to track down industry-wide publications and see if this change is being discussed. Call a competitor’s sales number and ask them about the change you’re concerned about. Don’t accept their response as the be-all, end-all, but file it with everything else you’ve learned.

That’s not my job

Why does this matter? Because you need to figure out if the change risks your career and financial future. Yes, a little bit of Captain Obvious – but this is on you. With very rare exceptions, no one is coming to save or protect your career – except you. It IS your job, like it or not.

If you’ve found yourself employed by a company that isn’t paying attention, you might be the next layoff – no matter how valuable you are. It’s on you not to be surprised.

Photo by Tim Stief on Unsplash

Categories
Employees Management

How to keep a job

Most of the time, I’m writing to employers – business owners – because most of us need some sort of help at one time or another. One of the things they sometimes struggle with and rarely discuss – particularly with their staff – are things like hiring, making payroll, figuring out who is making things happen, etc. All managers need help that they haven’t asked for.

What’s frustrating them?

If it isn’t already obvious, ask. Yes, ASK. If it’s obvious, see what you can do to take care of the problem. Find a way to ask that shows you care – assuming you do. If you don’t, maybe you’re what’s frustrating them. If you don’t care and it’s because of something going on in the shop / office, don’t they deserve to know? Don’t assume they do – because managers don’t see / hear everything.

If any of these things are your sweet spot – the things you like to do and are good at – offer to help and tell them why – **because** they are your sweet spot.

Who picks up the socks?

What I’m referring to here is little things left undone around the office. If you take care of these things, it will usually get noticed. If it doesn’t get noticed after a week or so, ask if it’s OK that you take care of those things when you have a few minutes at the end of your work day.

There are people who notice these things and people who don’t. Of the people who notice them, there are those who walk past them and those who pick things up and put them away, etc. Be the second person. It’s a little thing but it sends a message that you care about the place. In some cases, you might be eliminating a safety issue that keeps a co-worker from being injured.

This may seem like a little thing, but injuries to someone can impact production, potentially cause missed deadlines, and perhaps result in additional costs for your company. If the injured person is a key employee due to their skill, knowledge etc – the impact might be more significant. Despite those things, none of us want a co-worker to get hurt on the job – and we don’t want that for ourselves.

Create additional value

I know, “create additional value” seems a little buzzword-y, but think about the things you do from A to Z. Little things make a difference to your employer, but also to your company’s customers. Small touches take only a moment, but can make a difference. You know how this feels when it’s done for you.

A good way to create additional value is to notice things that can be improved AND do something about them. Duh, right? All of us can probably think of projects around the office or shop that seem to get hung up for reasons clearly within our control – yet it happens anyway. What’s the cost of a delayed project? Do we have to refund all or part of a payment? Do we lose a job? Does it cause us to lose a customer? Maybe all three.

Someone sees what’s causing the problem, even if it isn’t you. If you’re that person, make an adjustment if you can do so without creating drama. If you don’t know, ask a co-worker. Someone probably has a theory about what the problem is. Why wait until some manager notices – IF they notice?

I know these are simple, obvious things. If you think that, you’re probably already doing these things. If you aren’t, ask yourself why. Solve problems even before you’re asked – unless that can cause other problems.

Might help you get a job

Interestingly enough, these things are also good conversation during an job interview. Hiring managers and owners want to be sure that you’re the right person. Those who have gotten good at hiring have usually gotten that way by initially being bad at hiring.

Ask them what’s frustrating them, what isn’t getting done for unknown reasons, what’s taking too long. Do so from a place of curiosity, not ego. You’re trying to find out how you can help, not reminding them of their shortcomings. If the things they bring up are strong points for you, say so. Tell them how you think you can help. Tell them why you like doing those things and what your past experience is in fixing those problems. If you can discuss prior outcomes from similar work, do so.

Photo by Nate Johnston on Unsplash

Categories
Compass needed Employees Entrepreneurs planning

Sick & tired of worrying? Solve problems.

If you’re sick and tired of worrying about how long you keep your job, this is for you. If you’re unemployed or underemployed right now, this is for you.

The last three months have been pretty tough on employees. Some have had hours cut. Some have been furloughed, laid off, let go, or whatever someone called it. Some might know when you’re coming back. Many people don’t. COVID didn’t start the worrying for some. It just made it worse.

It’s not only the employees. Some of you have lost your business.

Then there are the “lucky” ones. You’ve kept your job or your business, even if you’re not as busy, the tips aren’t as good and/or the hours are no longer full-time. On top of all that, some of you have been screamed at, spat on, or worse.

Many of you are trying to figure out what happens next. You have questions like these:

  • What happens when unemployment changes in a few weeks?
  • What happens when other COVID response benefits go away?
  • What happens when the tourists go home?

It’s time to think

When I say it’s time to think, I mean that it’s time to think about what your next step is.

  • What are you gonna do next month?
  • What are you going to do next week?
  • What are you going to do tomorrow?

Most importantly, I mean “What are you going to do for the rest of today?

First, go for a walk or a hike or paddle, or something. Get outside. Turn your phone off. Go for a walk. Take a hike, a bike or a paddle and think really hard about a few things…

What could I be doing would provide the biggest bang for the buck.. that will deliver the most important solution, the best value for other people?

What’s the biggest problem that I know how to solve?

And last but certainly not least… these three:

What work, what product, creation, service, labor, effort, etc am I willing to do on my worst days, and on the days when I’m not sure where the next bag of groceries is coming from?

What work will I stick to on the days when everybody around me who usually believes in me is starting to wonder?

What would you do under those conditions that’s worth something to someone else?

What does “biggest” mean?

What does biggest even mean? Biggest seems kind of vague. What’s biggest in context with your current skills? What allows you to produce the most value by solving an important problem in TODAY’S world?

Think about the people you’ve worked with/for. If they came to you for something you’re really skilled at – what would it be? What else would they have you do?

It doesn’t matter if the problems you solve are ugly, dirty, or difficult. The dirty and/or difficult ones might be easier to find a market for – as many people will gladly pay to solve them. Choose what you’re good at. You can ponder whether you want to do this for the rest of your life at some other time. Right now, it’s time to choose something, find people who need it & get paid.

These problems might be financial, involve physical danger (or reduce it), or take the friction / hassle / waste out of a process.

What makes you say “Gimme that” when someone else is doing it? Doesn’t matter if “that” is a nail gun, trowel, chainsaw, laptop, a spreadsheet or the wheel of a truck. All that matters is that you’re the expert when that tool is in your hands. One warning: Don’t start with something that requires a licensing process unless you already have one. Choose something you can do now.

Start with that.

Next year, you might have to adjust. It’ll be more than clear how your newfound business should change as the COVID-influenced world changes to whatever’s next.

Who has that problem?

Now that you’ve settled on a problem, drill down.

Who has those problems? What are the different ways that you can help them?

Next question: “Is this problem important enough that they’ll pay someone to fix it AND can they pay the bill?”

If no one (or very few) can afford for you to fix the problem or the problem isn’t terribly important, find another problem.

It’s time to get started.

Photo by Anna Claire Schellenberg on Unsplash

Categories
Employees

The young will inherit the earth

I came across a two related stories this weekend. One about a middle school whose administration is considering blocking the mobile stock trading app, RobinHood from the school WiFi network. Another talking about how daytime player volume of Fortnite (a popular game) has dropped because a significant number of middle schoolers are day trading stocks instead of gaming. Apparently, these kids are only interested in gaming at night when the markets are closed.

You might wonder why I mention this. Middle schoolers, stock trading and video games are not usually “my topics”. The reason I mention this is that expertise is everywhere. It’s not just in the remote employee you hired who lives 3000 or 9000 miles away, or the person from the next town over, or just down the street. Most of us know a young person who got a spark from something or someone and now they’re super engaged with woodworking, stocks, fly fishing, etc.

Expertise: Where you find it

Expertise could be the seventh grader down the street who got that spark and for whatever reason, it relates to something your business does or should be doing. It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean they don’t care about the things typical seventh graders care about.

Even so, when someone this age gets a spark like this – it could drive their life direction for decades. One of these middle schoolers might be so fired up about stocks that her goal, even as a seventh grader, is to be the CEO of Goldman Sachs someday. Don’t sell them short (a pun?). In 20 years, you might crack open your iPad 27, open the Forbes app and find a picture of her at 29 as the new CEO of Goldman Sachs.

This might seem ridiculous, but things like this happen every day. Kids start sports at three years old and become Olympic champions. I know a young man who started programming at a very young age. He now has a scholarship to a Montana college to pursue computer related engineering. It happens all around us. If you consider the increased screen time, the increased focus on STEM, the access to information and software that many of us never had when we were in middle school – it makes sense. They have opportunities to learn about things that interest them, at their own speed, from almost anyone.

While we think it’s somewhat normal to find an 18 year old prodigy pitching and winning their first major league baseball game three weeks out of high school. There’s no reason to think that the same can’t happen in your business. There are lots of enterprising young people these days doing things many of us never even dreamed of.

But, they’re only 14!

You shouldn’t be surprised to find a 14 year old that knows more about put options or some other “esoteric” topic than you do. The thing to figure out is “Where could that go next?”

Our first reaction might be to offer them a job. A 14 year old or even some 18 to 21 year olds may not see that as a positive thing. Their response might be to look at you like you’re insane. Perhaps that isn’t what their life is focused on, or even what their near term goal is.

This might not make any sense to you. But to a 14 year old who has mastered a highly technical skill, offering the chance to be stuffed into a cubicle farm isn’t exactly a reward for all the hard work they did to get to where they are now. Their skill may mean freedom and flexibility to them.

Transform passion and expertise to experience

Many of these folks learn something like this because they have a passion for it. They’re interested in solving problems & making a difference in their area of expertise. Fitting into some randomly rigid work schedule that was popularized over 100 years ago isn’t even on their radar. Jobs for 14 year olds… doesn’t really make sense anyhow.

I don’t know how this works out for you and some young person with a valuable skill, but I do know that someone is out there who could be amazing resource for you even on an intermittent basis. Maybe they need a faster computer. Maybe their 529 needs a bump. Maybe they spend Saturday morning with you *in a public place* once a month or so. There’s value for them to see the real world application of their expertise. Figure out what works for both of you.

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Leadership Management

On being essential

Is your business “essential”? I don’t mean the Federal distinction. I mean in view of those who you serve, because those are the only ones who matter. No matter how bad the economy or anything else in the future might get, is your business serving essential needs for your clients?

Essential people

The people you’ve hired are a big part of what makes your business essential to your customers. Finding, keeping, and training people who love to take care of your customers is real work. Taking “good care” of them includes training, coherent management, “real wages” and benefits.

A business doesn’t pay “real wages” and benefits because someone else wants them to. They do it because it puts their team at ease, allowing them to focus on the quality, speed, and value of their work. A team that’s not worried about their job has more headspace to attend to their work. It puts a fence around them, making it hard for others to poach them.

Essential customers

Reach out to your very best customers. Call them or write an email that’s very clearly personal and not mail merged. Find out what their concerns are. Do they assume you’re going to be around? Remove any doubt. If you’re having problems, be square with them. You should be asking them if there’s anything causing critical problems right now. Are they things you can help with? Tell them specifically how. If you can’t, can you suggest someone who can? Be the one helping, not the one just trying to make a transaction happen.

You probably know the customers who are most on the edge. What can you manage to do for them? Even a small gesture that buys them a little more breathing room is worthwhile and will certainly be remembered.

Made in your image

When I see a company doing things that make them less essential than they could be, I tend to break down what they do well and what can they do better. In many small businesses, the capabilities and behavior of the businesses mimic the capabilities and behavior of the owner. Most owners are essential to our business – at least until our business matures. Some of this “made in your image” thing is good. Some isn’t. I battled it for years, as many of us do. One of the battles was over bookkeeping.

I’m not a fan of accounting. Accountants are fine. The actual work of accounting and bookkeeping always made me crazy. I know, I know. Seems silly given what I do. It is. Ever have one of those things you know you need to get better at even though you really don’t like it? That was accounting for me.

The thing is, accounting isn’t there solely to keep the tax man happy. The quality of your business decisions will improve substantially as your understanding of your numbers improves. No, I don’t mean the tax code and all of that. I mean the numbers that fall out of day to day operations. They all fall to your books. They’re metrics, but not the normal kind I talk about. Lots of metrics tell a story – and accounting does too. If you don’t listen to the numbers (including the accounting ones), the story won’t go how you want it to.

Mirrors reflect everything

I tell this story to reinforce that my company was a direct reflection of me during my “bleah, accounting” phase and that was not a good thing. It was important to work on (or delegate) the things that I don’t want to be reflected from me. Becoming essential means doing those things for your business.

Unless you’ve worked at it, your business reflects the things you’re good at, as well as those things you need to work on. The mirror reflects everything in front of it. Your business doesn’t have to, but you have to make a conscious decision that this is going to happen.

You have to choose which of your behavior your business reflects and which ones it does better than you. This will, of course, require some delegation or some training, or perhaps both. For me, it was both.

Customers decide

Your customers decide whether or not your business is essential to them. The behavior of your company and the value it provides to your customers is how they decide.

Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

Categories
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
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.

Photo by Balaji Malliswamy on Unsplash

Categories
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.

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

Categories
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?

Photo by Tomas Tuma 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