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Employees Leadership Management Project Management

Have you tried managing?

If you talk to someone who complains that their company is out of control, the reason is not always obvious. Once you pin them down about the reasons for their problems, you’ll find that they aren’t managing. We rarely think we’re doing enough managing to deal with these issues. If pressed about whether we’re managing the cause of these problems, we’ll own up to it. We often know the problem and the solution. Despite this, we aren’t putting the effort into managing the root of the problem.

Managing is work

Don’t get me wrong. Managing people is not easy. It can consume a ton of time. Yet we all know the repercussions if we don’t manage. We do know those things, right?

So why don’t we do more of it? It’s not that we don’t care.

Even profitable, “well run” small companies doing $10-15MM ARR suffer from a lack of managing. While it’s obvious, we have a way of being terrible at dealing with the obvious.

A few questions to inform whether you’re managing:

Cash flow – Do you have a resource that tells you at a glance your cash needs are under control for the next 30-60-90 days? If not, you’re not managing cash flow.

Projects – To find out the status of all active projects, can you look at a single resource? Doesn’t matter if it’s a whiteboard, software, clipboards, or a spreadsheet. Or do you have to ask each lead for the project? Can you see which aspects of a project are on schedule and which are behind? Or do you have to ask each lead? Are you aware of the risks of each project and how the leads are mitigating them? For that matter, are the leads aware of them?

Hiring – Do you have a hiring process? How many hires do you make that you’re happy about after six months? What percentage don’t work out? How many start their own company after leaving you? What percentage of your non-leaders take leadership roles after leaving you?

Training – What routines are in place for new employee training? Is there a way for you to review every staffer’s training progress? What about the progress of senior staff?

Service – Can you review your customers’ happiness with your service? Without someone complaining, can you identify service opportunities that didn’t go well? Without asking someone, can you review the outcome of a sample of service calls over the last 30 days?

Sales – Which salesperson produces the least (or most) refunds? Why? Whose sales are the most profitable? Which one produces the longest-lasting customers? Who makes the most calls? Who makes the most of their calls? Is it the same person?

Marketing – Which ad medium has the best ROI for you? Which ad source produces the most profitable customers? Does customer lifetime value vary from ad source to ad source? Which ad source produces “bad” customers?

Managing – Without asking, can you tell how your managers’ teams projects are going? How are their people are doing? If you can’t do these things, neither can your managers.

What managing isn’t

Why are we bad at managing? For some of us, it’s because we learned managing from the wrong kind of manager. Some of us learned it by the seat of our pants. There’s nothing wrong with either method, unless you’re learning the wrong way.

One of the wrong ways is thinking that yelling at your team is managing. Do you or your team only think you’re managing when you’re angry? As an old friend used to say, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Micromanagement is a good example. It is not managing. While micromanaging is good for two year olds, it’s ineffective for employees. It’s not good for you or your company.

It’s not uncommon to see micromanagement at companies with management problems. Instead of managing they’re micromanaging.

You might be micromanaging if you’re:

  • Tracking time, not to track progress, but from a “butts in seats” perspective.
  • Not tracking time now and then to find out “how long a process takes so we know what our costs are” perspective.

I bring up micromanaging because it’s a good example of what managing isn’t. The worst part is that we micromanage and think we’ve been managing. Problem is, we still haven’t managed our team or the problem we want to solve.

Photo by Jan Szwagrzyk on Unsplash

Categories
attitude Employees Leadership Management

Nothing is impossible

Back in ’95, I talked to my employer at the time about working for them from another location. Not from home, but from a different state. At first their response was a muted “Yes”. In retrospect, I should have drilled down a bit more into that reply. I didn’t because sometimes we hear what we want to hear. A few months later, I was ready to make that move, so I asked about firming up the details. As you might imagine, the “Yes” soon became a “Sorry no, that’s impossible for us.” Us meaning them, of course.

That “no” began my business journey. Sure, I’d cooked up a few small side hustles in years prior, but this was different. This had to be full-time. I needed the patience to build something real. I needed a plan. A random side hustle wasn’t going to feed the bulldog.

It seemed impossible.

Life advice

A few weeks before the “No”, I received one of my favorite nuggets of life advice from an older guy in Jackson Hole. He said “If you want to live here, you’d better bring your own job and your own woman because we don’t have enough of either.

When you get advice like this, it’s easy to wave off. We tell ourselves “Oh, it’ll be different for me.”

I was fortunate because he took the time to tell me his story. The short version: He’d moved his wife and kids to Jackson in the early ’60s. When their station wagon pulled into town, they had $200.

35 years later, he was doing pretty well, so I took him at his word.

We have trust issues

Distributed work has changed a bit since 1995. In early 2020, it was still “Sorry no, that’s impossible” in the view of many. Not because the technology wasn’t ready, but because we still have a lot of trust issues.

“It’s impossible to know if our employees are doing their jobs if they aren’t right in front of us.”, they said. We’ll circle back to that.

Add COVID. Stir. While our trust issues remain, we did what was necessary to get the work done.

Firms and services that never imagined succumbing to distributed work’s temptation (evil?) did so. They made it work. They struggled some, then figured it out. I watched my wife have Zoom-based doctor appointments.

Such things were “impossible” months earlier.

The impossible things

“Mark, there are lots of jobs that **are** impossible to do from home.” Indeed. It’s hard to take a CNC home. You can’t smelt iron in your backyard – at least not at scale. It’s tough to harvest crops from a distance. There are many more jobs like this.

The point of all this is not yet another rant about the pros and cons of distributed work.

It’s about how easy we whip out the word “impossible”.

We’ve convinced ourselves only Steve Jobs and Elon Musk can do the impossible. By the way, Steve’s been dead since October 2011.

Are those two guys are the only ones who can do the impossible? Or is it that they’re the only two who don’t give up before they get started?

While inertia and friction are contributing factors, the biggest issue is human nature. We convince ourselves something is too hard.

Or is it that we don’t want to do the hard things?

Are distributed workers working?

“We can’t allow distributed work. It’s impossible to keep track of what our people are doing”, they say.

Said another way, “Unless they’re at their desk, I can’t be sure they’re working.”

If you can’t be sure when they’re somewhere else, you can’t be sure when they’re at your shop. This isn’t about them. It’s about you.

Is it enough for someone to be visible to you for eight hours? That’s not work. It’s control. Except it isn’t, because that control is an illusion.

If your team’s work isn’t measurable, it doesn’t matter where they are. Butts in seats don’t change that. The folks wasting half their days can do that for months before anyone figures it out – and do so right under your nose.

It’s not impossible. It’s a choice.

Are you sure?

What else did you used to think was “impossible”?

What isn’t getting done, built, invented, or conceived because it’s “impossible”?

Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash

Categories
Employees Entrepreneurs Leadership

Team building? Skip the hustle & chaos

I recently met an entrepreneur who recently discovered long-term planning. I don’t say this to make fun of them. I say this because it’s great and because some of you might be in the same spot with your team.

The conversation started with “The first time I ever thought more than four weeks ahead was today.” (in the context of their business)

If you’re thinking, “That’s not me, I have plans at least 90 days out” yet your team doesn’t know the details, it IS you.

This person’s business is growing and profitable, but their past sounded a bit chaotic. They commented that projects, and internal alignment were all over the place. Why? The plans, project ideas, and thoughts driving the business are all in the owner’s head – and nowhere else.

Yours might be too. You and your team might be burning time and money at a rate that isn’t necessary. If even productive days feel like chaos to your team, it IS you. Once you discover this, frustrated team members are no longer a surprise.

Old mindset, new mindset

They’ve left their “hustle” phase and now lead their business. Their discovery, not my assertion. They understand they were making execution as a team difficult and frustrating. It wasn’t intentional. They hadn’t learned what the team needed.

Most of us must learn this ourselves.

Until we do, we have false beliefs like:

  • Only I can do this work.
  • If only I work more and harder, things will change.
  • I must keep plans and ideas to myself until it’s time to do the work because no one will understand.
  • I don’t trust anyone else with my business / work / todo list
  • Unless I’m out in front leading the charge, nothing happens.

That last one… ever notice that the best leaders are at the rear?

They aren’t at the rear because they shy away from the action. It’s not easy for most to step back. Most entrepreneurs love to be right out there “at the front, in the teeth of the battle”.

The best leaders know that the well-prepared team takes the lead. Well-prepared teams know the mission, their purpose, the plan, and the expected outcome. Well-prepared teams don’t need you to get their work done.

Like a bottle rocket

We see the “hustle vibe” that some project. “Work longer and harder than the rest and you’ll get there.” Sometimes that’s true. Usually it isn’t.

Some project it to get “want-to-preneurs” off the couch. They enjoy guiding others to find their own independence. Many have something to sell. A few are charlatans.

“Hustle” too long and you end up like a bottle rocket. Burn all your fuel to get to apogee in seconds. Then what? An uncontrolled free-fall to Earth. Great for the Fourth of July. Not so great for your mortgage payment.

Many survive their hustle phase and figure out a better approach. Despite burning a lot of fuel (time and money) to get off the ground early on, they create a sustainable business.

None of the successful people projecting the hustle vibe work 18 hour days seven days a week. None of them work with no staff, no contractors, no leadership, and no shared mission / plan.

NOT ONE.

They still work hard… as a team. A group of people capable of functioning as a team does so when it has a leader rather than a VP of Team Chaos.

The VP of Team Chaos

Wondering why your team doesn’t seem to know what to do from one day to the next? Are they frustrated despite getting the work done? Do they hesitate until they get direction from you?

If you ask them “Are productive work days often chaotic and frustrating to you and the team?” is their answer “Yes”? You might be the VP of Team Chaos.

Want a recipe for chaos and frustration?

Mix the following ingredients:

  • 1 business owner
  • 1 team
  • “The plans, project ideas, and thoughts driving the business are all in my head” or similar

The entrepreneur is often the primary source of chaos. This doesn’t mean we’re bad business people. We tend to feed off the “chaos of battle”. Thing is, teams don’t. Chaos makes teams miserable even when they believe in the company and their work.

We have to lead. If that’s not us, we must find a leader and make it clear they have the authority to do so.

Work is a lot easier, fun, and more productive on a well-prepared team.

Photo by Mahir Uysal on Unsplash

Categories
Customer relationships customer retention Employees

Getting what you want?

You may have heard a Gandhi quote about change. The odds are good that you know the quote most frequently attributed to him: “Be the change you want to see in the world“…

Did you know there’s no proof he said that? This, despite the slew of motivational posters, books, and keynote addresses referencing it.

What he did say was this: “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.

To me, it’s a much different statement. Rather than a woo-woo “Let’s make the world” better thing, it’s about how we show up in our own world.

How we can apply this idea to how we deal with our teams, customers, suppliers, and even ourselves? Let’s give it a shot.

The nature of your team

I talk to a lot of business owners about their people. The things owners want are pretty common. We want our teams to act like owners, trust us, believe what we say, stay longer, and communicate better.

As we reduce unstated expectations, our team delivers what we expect.
To get your team to communicate better, improve your communication with them.

As we teach the economics of our business model to the team, our team’s performance improves.

Our team behaves more like owners as we increase the ways we treat them like owners.

When we treat our team like a family, our team performs like a family.

To get your direct reports to believe you, show your direct reports that you believe them.

As leadership shows more trust in the team, the team’s trust in leadership will increase.

As we become the kind of employer people want to work for, we find better employees who stay longer.

… and your customers

I talk to a lot of business owners about their customers. Again, common themes dominate. Owners want more customers who pay their bills on time. We want smarter customers who don’t become customer service burdens. We’d like less negotiation over pricing.

As we improve our value proposition, customer negotiations are less aggressive.

When we’re crystal clear how we help others achieve their goals, pricing is less important.

As our onboarding process improves, smarter customers choose us.

To shrink our customer service burden, we must make our products easier to use.

As we improve our self-service resources, customer service loads shrink.

When we make it easier to pay, our accounts receivable improves.

As we reduce the friction of dealing with us, the burden of servicing customers gets smaller.

When we treat our customers like peers, our customers act more like peers.

If we communicate with our customers in a specific way, they will communicate with us that way.

… and your suppliers

Supplier comments from the owners I talk to are rather consistent. Companies want better terms, more accurate delivery information, and better service. The irony (?) is that these are the same things our customers want from us.

As our payments become more timely, our supplier’s service and delivery improves.

Our suppliers’ terms improve as our payment timeliness improves.

As our vendor communication improves, vendors get better at communicating with us.

Leaving no expectations unstated with our vendors results in improved delivery and service.

When we receive exactly what we want and need, it reduces our desire to haggle over pricing and terms.

And finally, you.

Given those examples, consider the “…so does the attitude of the world change towards him” of the quote.

It’s not the attitude of the world.

It’s our attitude.

We express our attitude in many ways:

  • How we convey our view of the world to our team.
  • How we show up for our team.
  • How we show up for ourselves.
  • What we assign importance to through our actions.
  • The examples we set.
  • What we do when employees start acting like owners.
  • How we treat our customers.
  • How we talk about our customers.
  • What we say about our people behind their backs to other employees.
  • How we respond to employees who have wronged other members of the team.

Everyone sees these aspects of our attitude. Our leaders, team members, suppliers, partners, vendors, and others. They all do.

These things tell people who we are, regardless of what we say.

As a whole, these things and others tell people exactly how to show up when they’re around us. That’s what we get from them.

Are you getting what you want? If not, consider whether you’re giving what you want.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees

Do you scare off applicants?

I’ve talked to several young people in the last month or so who are looking for new gigs. Some were college grads, some not. Each of them had some level of imposter syndrome. And yet, they all had skills, experience, and training in their chosen field.

Ever feel you’re not qualified to be in the role you’re in, or that you’re applying for? Wondered, waited, and expected someone to figure out that you have no idea what you’re doing? Thinking you’re a fraud, a poser, or a fake?

That’s imposter syndrome. It affects both newbies and experienced, highly-accomplished people. The shade tree psychologist in me suspects it’s something our minds cook up to “protect” us. If you’ve ever felt like you were out of your league (even if you weren’t), it might have been imposter syndrome.

Don’t scare them off

Now imagine that your company is looking for entry-level or inexperienced help. Do your ads actually make that clear? Does the ad scare off these applicants?

Sometimes we add extra qualifications to ads, hoping we’ll find someone extra qualified. Some see those qualifications not realizing what they are: “nice to have but not required”. Result: They don’t apply, or they come into an interview “knowing” they aren’t qualified. It seeps out of them – but isn’t always obvious.

When you’re looking for less-experienced help – say so. Be crystal clear about what you want. I know, you’ll get applicants who don’t have the qualifications you’re asking for – even of entry-level people. As you know, that happens anyway. There might be a gem in the group.

You may have experienced people who can do your company’s work in their sleep. These applicants know that. It feeds the syndrome. They’re trying to figure out how they could fit in given that you have those people.

They may not realize your experts started out in entry level roles. They’re wondering why you’d consider them. Be clear you’re looking for someone ready to grow into their career at your place.

They assume you’re looking for someone who can step in and part the Red Sea. Meanwhile, you’re looking for people interested in learning how to swim. Be clear that you’re looking for good people to join the team who are ready grow into the open roles.

If you’re hiring people who have less than a couple years of experience, you’re going to retrain them. Mention that you know few of them will walk in the door and immediately become productive. Discuss that the necessity of training. Even if they could step in and be productive, let them know you want them to do what you do the way your company does it.

The what doesn’t matter, whether it’s sales, building and servicing products, deliver services, whatever.

Engaged and interested

When you meet them, are they engaged or asleep at the wheel? Are they interested and curious? If they never apply, you’ll never know.

I don’t mean you’ll take anyone. You’re looking for motivated, engaged people with the right attitude. People interested in what you do who don’t have a five to ten years of experience.

The last thing you want is to hire somebody who can’t get along with your team. You don’t want someone who isn’t a good person, or however you’d describe the right ones.

There are usually signs they’re hard workers and/or team players. I remember one resume came in where the applicant had worked on an Alaskan fishing boat. That alone left no doubt they were a team player and a hard worker.

I saw a similar resume recently where the person had worked backcountry trail crew before getting technical training. The kind of person who can do that work not only has to work hard, but they have get along with the same small group for weeks at a time. They don’t get to take off for home every night. They’re living and working with their crew. Someone who isn’t a team player won’t be there long.

In your ad for these less-experienced people, focus on the personal qualities you want to see in the right kind of applicant. Ask questions that enable them to reveal those qualities – or that they don’t have them. Good team members are what you need. You can teach them, train them, get them where you need them to be – if they apply.

Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash

Categories
Employees Management

A loss you can’t afford

Have you ever lost something you couldn’t afford to lose? When asked this question, most of us think of a favorite dog, our wallet, an heirloom (like that folding Sog pocketknife… sigh), or similar. While a personal loss hurts our heart or wallet – business people often point to a bigger pain. The loss of a critical employee.

We’ve talked before about taking care of these people re: finance and opportunity. Those are easy fixes. Where you run into serious trouble is the loss of senior leaders and front-line employees. The former are already enjoying some level of financial and opportunity success. The latter often aren’t, unless you’re paying attention.

Losing senior leaders

Sometimes you’re going to lose them anyway. No matter what compensation you offer. No matter what opportunities you have to offer. It happens. People leave.

Sometimes, the compensation is so far out of your budget, there’s nothing you can do but say “Congrats”. In others, the opportunity is one you have no way to counter. In the rarest of cases, someone finds both. You suffer a big loss.

This points to the critical need to always be developing new leaders. Obvious, sure. Now ask a few friends who own businesses how they are developing new leaders. If they aren’t, think about what the loss of a critical leader would hurt them. You’ll see why that’s a weakness for them before you recognize it in your company. Once you see why it’s their weakness, it’ll be easier to accept you have one too.

If a lot of people leave your business and get great gigs, it’s often a sign your company is a great training ground. That’s good, though it does mean you need to work harder to keep people, unless you “enjoy” losing them.

Losing critical front-line people

The loss of critical front-line employees can hurt worse than the loss of a senior leader. I know – that seems counter-intuitive. Adept seniors leaders are critical to your success – and they can be difficult to find.

Even so, there’s someone who binds everything together. In my experience, they’re the one willing to take on anything. A tranny, a computer, a fussy stuck valve under the building. They’re the one who says they’ll give it a try when a customer is stuck – even if they haven’t a clue what the problem is.

They hop in and learn on the go. They have a great attitude. They’re good at 100 different things. Sooner or later, someone will recognize that in them. If the right firm makes an offer this critical person can’t refuse, they’re gone.

Often, it isn’t because of you. It’s because they want more. They’re driven. And sure, they have kids to feed, or similar.

People with many capabilities and a willingness to do anything are gold. You might find that it takes two or three people to replace them.

Be very intentional about avoiding this kind of loss. Don’t guess at what they want. Ask. Make sure they understand how important you think they are to the company. Don’t make them guess about that either. Find out what’s important to them and their family.

What are these people doing?

When you take a loss like the ones we’ve been discussing, you learn what they were doing. No, not what you thought they were doing. I mean the work that was actually getting done.

The work these folks do can fall into cracks. Important, but not noticed. Ever drive past a garage sale that’s unreadable? Sure, the print is always too small, but the key is that you’re moving to fast to read it. You miss it, if you saw it at all. Your eyes were on something further down the road.

Their work is often like that. There’s no spotlight. No glitter.

It takes work to find out what they do. One way is to promote one of these folks or migrate them into a more important or better role. That’s when their team figures out that this person did more than anyone knew.

Watch what happens when they take vacation – and make sure they’re left alone while they’re out.

Asking them to write job descriptions doesn’t usually cut it. The advice they leave for their peers when they take vacation, have surgery, take care of a parent or sick kid. That’s often what you learn from.

Take care of these people. Look harder for them.

They’re everywhere.

Photo by Alev Takil (Unsplash)

Categories
Employees Hiring

Do you filter applicants?

Earlier today I was speaking with a friend who is looking for work. He mentioned something about interviewers asking for salary requirements. Personally, I always found that question lazy and a little aggravating. Not because of the question itself, but because there are better ways to ask that that yield a more complete answer. The salary requirements question rarely needs to be asked.

Most of the time, the person asking the question is filling out a form someone had asked them to complete about an applicant. The person asking the question often has no say in the decision. They’re simply filling out a form someone asked them to complete – and the answer is sometimes used later to either filter applicants or lowball them.

What’s your budget?

Some candidates will have been coached to respond that they’re confident they can arrive at a fair compensation that works for both parties if the discussion gets to that point. Others have learned to reply with “What’s your budget?” – which the questioner doesn’t always know because they are simply processing a form.

The question is also used to weed people out of the interviewing process early on – applicant filtering that the ad should already have done. In most cases, the candidate and the potential employer are not terribly far apart since both of them know the role’s compensation range in their local market – unless neither of them have been paying attention. In remote employment situations, these things can get a little more complex.

Good applicants don’t typically come sauntering into an interview expecting 40% more than your position is budgeted for unless your ad misrepresented the position, or the applicant is clueless.

Anybody who has a few minutes to search around can find out exactly what the pay range is for that role is based on location. This information is easy to find and everyone on both sides knows it. Result: This tap dance between what’s your budget and what are your salary requirements is mostly a waste of time.

Filter manually if you must

If you haven’t used your ad to filter applicants, there’s still a good answer to the budget question that helps everyone. Something like “Our budget is in the range of $LOW to $HIGH. People without experience ABC or qualifications XYZ typically start between $LOW and $MIDDLE. People with ABC and XYZ typically get an offer in a range of $MIDDLE and $HIGH.”

You’ve told them what your offer amount decision process involves. They now know how they fit those parameters and already know what their financial situation is. It’s a good time to ask them if they are still interested.

Sure, some will say that you’ve given them a sliver of an advantage by telling them what your range is. Horse biscuits. Again, unless they’re completely oblivious to the existence of the internet, they already know the range. At this point, it’s on the candidate to look elsewhere, and both of you to consider if there are other openings they’re qualified for – including positions with variable compensation.

Let your ad do the filtering

The process used to filter applicants should always start with the ad. Folks get worried that no one will apply (since when?) if their ad is too specific. Clearly, some companies go the other direction asking for things the position clearly doesn’t require. Software companies in particular are bad about that.

Regardless of what business you’re in, the ad’s reason for existence is to get qualified applicants to self-select – either in or out. Your ad should speak specifics to culture, your budget, workload, etc. You don’t want to interview 100 people when you know there might be 12 qualified people nearby with the right skills and experience. No one has time for that.

Where this ends if you aren’t careful: The lack of solid help wanted ad writing is one reason why corporate America ended up with all these resume scanner programs and websites that scan for keywords and throw out qualified candidates whose resume didn’t happen have the exact keywords needed to pass through the filter.

Resume scanners and websites can’t filter for culture, fit, and other “soft” qualities of an applicant, but a great help wanted ad can – and do so legally. Let the companies who must deal with thousands of resumes suffer through that while you home in on the right folks easily.

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

Categories
Employees

A linchpin makes it all come together

Is there someone in your company whose abrupt departure would cause unholy chaos? Seth Godin called them a linchpin.

You probably aren’t worried about staff members quitting right now. Many employees are simply hoping they’ll be kept on the team until the vaccine does its thing and life resumes to whatever the next normal looks like. Similarly, many employers are hoping business remains strong enough that they can keep paying their team until some form of normalcy returns.

And yet, there’s one type of employee to be concerned about. They’re the glue that holds everything together. I’m talking about someone whose departure could bring the house down, even though might not be apparent.

They’re the folks who “are the company”. If you have someone like that, ask yourself: Do we treat and compensate them in a manner that correlate to their value to the company & our customers?

When the economy starts growing again and it’s clear that the turnaround is going to stick, many companies will be hiring. Finding great people to do the work your company does is your second most important job. Keeping the great ones you have is the first.

Your linchpin will be the one other companies are looking for. They’re not just a member of the team, they’re an essential cog in your business.

You need a plan to keep them.

We’ll talk about four areas:

  • What happens if you don’t keep them?
  • Compensate linchpins properly
  • Treat them like you value them.
  • Make their leadership official.

What happens if you don’t keep them?

When the economy turns around, many businesses will see a glut of applications.

The linchpin will have their choice of jobs, even if they aren’t looking. If you don’t know who they are, which is entirely possible in a larger company, your first step is to identify them. Your managers should know and if they don’t, that should tell you something about the work your managers are doing. In a smaller company, you probably know who they are.

A friend recently told me about their primary contact at the CPA firm who does their taxes. They gave the firm and their clients two years notice that they were retiring. Normally, this would seem unusual. Taxes are often once-a-year transactions, so their announcement was two transactions worth of notice – reasonable.

The company where they worked did nothing to replace them. Maybe they assumed it’d be business as usual. They were “only” a middle tier employee doing tax work – they weren’t a CPA. How much impact could their departure have?

This linchpin retired this past summer. The week of December 3rd, my friend got a letter that his CPA firm was dissolving. Not in a few months or after tax season. Immediately.

It turns out the now-retired person was the glue holding the office and their business processes together. Imagine having a CPA firm for over 20 years and having to tell all of your clients in December that you won’t be able to help them with their upcoming tax filings. Not this year, not ever.

Compensate a linchpin well

I can think of two people who worked for me who were linchpins. They’ve probably been linchpins everywhere they’ve worked. 

I had control of J’s compensation, but I was young and stupid. The company was new, so every dollar had to be watched. No excuses – I was less of a leader back then.

We treated her like the valuable linchpin she was but whenever I think back to that time, I wish I had paid her better, even though she made higher than average for the position at that time and made more than at her previous job.

20 years later, I’ve yet to find a more effective peer, though I haven’t given up my search.

It doesn’t matter what they do. These people do whatever they do so well and create such an amazing experience that their customers (internal or external) would be up in arms if they left.

For the person you’re thinking of, are you paying them at a level that indicates how much the company values them? It’s easy to say “Well, they’re in a role whose market pay isn’t higher.” Do you make the decisions or does your budget? Do you know what the impact on your company would be if someone offered them $200 more a week than you pay them, so they left because they needed the money?

If you don’t currently have the funds, talk with them. They need to know they’re appreciated and how you’re thinking about them. Keep your promises. 

While money is important, it’s not all about compensation. There are at least two other things you can and should do to recognize your linchpins. 

Treat them like you value them

T reminds me of the person who retired from the CPA firm, ie: they are the glue that holds everything together. Her magic manifested itself during new customer onboarding, customer training and similar duties.

That company’s onboarding process was complex and technical – and was made more challenging by the variety of customer environments we encountered.

During the onboarding process, she’d discover things the customer never told sales – things no one knew about the organization or their business process. Things the customer didn’t often realize they needed or needed to stop.

These are the things you discover when you get down to bare metal in order to add a new capability for a customer. And yet, I watched the company treat her indifferently at times, as a hassle at others, with reverence at other times, and ultimately as a difficult person who was essential, so the company tolerated her… until it didn’t.

I say tolerated because no one seemed to like managing her. We got along well perhaps because I was fortunate enough to figure out her motivation. She loved the work and her customers. Anything that got in the way of that didn’t sit well with her, but the secret was that her occasional grumpiness was sourced entirely in her concern about a customer’s poor experience. The customer always came first. She’d schedule an onboarding at two am if necessary.

I put myself between the aforementioned treatment and her as much as I could because her value was evident. I saw first hand what she was getting done. She had above-average patience with customers, as well as a load of industry knowledge, technical skill, and the ability to navigate the crazy things we sometimes find at a customer site – without losing it.

There was literally no one else at the company who could do her job. While I had the technical abilities, I didn’t have the industry knowledge. She had both, as well as the ability to work with customers.

The value of people like this is immense. Maybe you can’t pay them like a VP, but you’d better treat them with the same consideration. They’re worth it. Finding out their value by virtue of their departure will be expensive and painful. It’s not all about compensation.

Make their leadership official

The people we’re talking are often asked to train new team members, even those in more senior roles. There’s a reason linchpins are often asked to train others – and it isn’t necessarily their skill.

It’s the example they set and the attitude they bring to the work. 

The thing about spreading what this person does is that how they do their work is what makes them a leader. Sure, they may have more experience and maybe more advanced skills than others, but usually, it’s their attitude and the care they take doing the actual work.

Instead of thinking “I’m just a worker bee, this isn’t important work”, they work as if they realize that every step in the process is an important part of the whole, even their part, because it is.

That mindset and the thought processes they convey can be transferred to other people by using them as mentors or trainers. While this may not be a true management role, having someone act as a mentor or trainer is still recognizing them as a leader. Having a fancy title or management responsibility doesn’t make you a leader. Your actions do that. Most of them are leaders long before that – and often remain leaders even if the title and responsibility is never conveyed.

The people around them already know they’re a leader. Having them mentor or train others tells the linchpin that YOU know. That’s important. It sends a company-wide message that recognize their leadership, even though they aren’t “management”.

You probably have a linchpin on your team – maybe more than one if you’re lucky. Question is, can you keep them?

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

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