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
Leadership Management

Be Prepared on Main St.

If you believe the folks randomly interviewed on the news, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s too worried about COVID-19 here in Montana. How they shop tells a different story: people want to be prepared. I recently found the TP section of Wal-Mart all but empty. Costco was out of TP except for the big public restrooms rolls. Same for the 20 pound bags of rice (Costco-wise). I mention this because ignoring the need to “Be Prepared” (the Boy Scout Motto) isn’t advisable in your business life any more than in your personal life – even if you weren’t a Scout. To that end, a friend sent me a link to a founder/CEO advisory sent by the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm Sequoia Capital. Print readers, see https://medium.com/sequoia-capital/coronavirus-the-black-swan-of-2020-7c72bdeb9753

The Sequoia advisory was aimed at founders and CEOs of firms they’ve invested in, yet they kindly shared it with everyone. They called it (paraphrased) “guidance… while dealing with potential business consequences of the spreading effects…“.

If you read it, bear in mind that it’s targeted at founders and CEOs at startups, not necessarily at Main Street businesses. Still, much of the guidance applies to local business, so I used a little editorial license to adjust their guidance for Main Street.

Challenges being faced

They listed drop in business activity (sales), supply chain disruptions, curtailment of travel, time to containment, recovery time for the economy after containment. All of these things could impact Main Street. For non-tech businesses, the supply chain is the one that concerns me. Stay on top of this if you depend on Just-In-Time suppliers.

Cash runway – Most Main Street businesses don’t have a Silicon Valley style runway. They have receivables & payables and the only investor is often the owner. If you have a line of credit to smooth out the bumps, have a cup of coffee with your banker. No one likes surprises – and that goes for both of you. Two-way communication is critical.

Fundraising – Few Main Street businesses are concerned about raising another round of capital, but the thought of forging partnerships during difficult times is wise, even on Main Street. As the advisory noted, “Constraints focus the mind and provide fertile ground for creativity.

Sales forecasts – While this paragraph is brief, it’s important. Customers may delay payments because they’re being paid slowly. Be prepared, communicate often, assume nothing.

Marketing – While I agree that care is needed (where the advisory says “rein in customer acquisition spending” and “raise the bar on ROI for marketing spend“), events like this cause some companies to freeze. Fear has them not marketing as hard (or worse, not at all). Fear-induced contraction can become self-fulfilling, causing business to soften because they took their foot off the gas. Even if your spending is curtailed, don’t stop marketing altogether. If you invest carefully, you could pick up some business you might not otherwise have gained.

Headcount – While it’s just slang, I detest this word and its cousin “Human Capital”. As if we’re thinking “Hey Buck, back that skid of human capital up to the loading dock, will ya?“. Let’s take a different angle at this. Your people are going to be scared, or at least, worried. They’re worried that you might cut their hours, or cut them loose entirely, much less that the business might fail. People don’t respond well to surprises. Communicate early & often. If you have an emergency fund or cash buffer that has you ready to make payroll despite a bumpy three or four months, tell them sooner rather than later. Their concern will impact their behavior. You don’t want that.

If it starts to look like making payroll could be tough a month from now, don’t wait to tell them. I know, I know, you don’t want to lose them, so communicate carefully and honestly. Be flexible & creative. Find a win-win to help them stay that helps you both, even if part-time. When things get rolling again, you don’t want to be the business who can’t hit cruising speed due to an inexperienced staff.

Capital Spending – As Sequoia noted, keep your powder dry.

Leadership – They hit this for a couple of paragraphs because it’s important. Depending on how things go over the next few months, your checkbook and your leadership could be tested. Your actions will send a message to your entire community.

Photo by cheng feng on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Entrepreneurs Leadership

Keep looking for lessons

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

Communication lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look for the teachers

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for lessons

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

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

Keep looking.

Photo by Ryan Graybill on Unsplash

Categories
Employees Leadership

Shadow leadership

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

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

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

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

Danger has trailing indicators

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

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

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

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

Shadow leadership is often born of neglect

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

Shadow leadership has similar roots.

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

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

Until someone steps up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some leaders won’t ask

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

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

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

Situationally aware

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

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

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

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Categories
Leadership

Leadership & change

We spend a lot of time talking about things you can do to make sure that your business is around next year, or a few years from now. It’s a continuous effort. Still, things change and will keep changing, of course. That may seem like an almost silly comment to make, but the thing is, it’s not just aspects of your business that change. The nature of change itself is changing. Not only the nature of those changes, but the speed of the changes as well as how fast the rate of change changes. That’s what can sneak up on you.

Pulling Gs

That “how fast the rate of change changes” thing may be a bit of a hair puller. What we’re talking about is the difference between speed (how fast something is moving) and acceleration (how fast a moving object’s speed is increasing). To put it in more familiar terms, think about how a car or plane accelerate or turn. Their change in direction is measured in “Gs” – ie: G-forces. A single G is the force we all feel from the earth’s gravity. A car might be going 40 miles an hour at a moment in time, but it might be accelerating at a rate that causes the driver to experience multiple Gs.

Most people don’t get the opportunity to handle more than a G or two. Why? Outside of roller coasters, multiple Gs are usually experienced only by professional race drivers and pilots. Think about any scene that you’ve seen in a movie or TV show where a novice flier is a passenger in a fighter jet. In most of these situations, the pilot is asked to have a little “fun” with the novice flier and make some high G-force turns. The novice flier doesn’t take that very well. After training and time experiencing multiple Gs, their mind and their body will figure it out and they’ll get used to it. That works for G-forces and for the pace of change.

Change at the office

The difficulty of dealing with multiple Gs is high. It’s not for everyone. The increasing pace of change is a growing challenge for owners, managers, and teams.

Think about your industry and what’s changed in the last five years, and consider how fast that change has occurred. Now compare that pace to the pace and volume of change in the 15 year period prior to that.

More things have changed in the last five years than changed in the prior 15. If you look back another couple of decades, you’ll see the same thing. Lots of things changed from 1980 to 2000. But as you got closer to 2000, the changes accelerated. As you came closer to 2010, the speed of change continued to increase. Dealing with this as a leader is your challenge and responsibility.

The issue?

The challenge of the ever-increasing pace of change is the same topic we discuss in other contexts all the time: Leadership.

The leadership in most companies and governments (large and small, at all levels) is not keeping up. If you look at how companies are being managed, many managed as they were 10 or 20 years ago. To be sure, it’s great that they’re still open after that long. It’s not a small accomplishment. I don’t mean to say that management a decade or three in the past was wrong, poor, etc. I’m simply saying that things move quicker than ever today. Preparing for, researching, and managing change was a substantial senior leadership responsibility a few decades ago. Today, this task is tougher than ever.

Your ability to keep up is critical to being here for another 10 or 20 years. You’ve also got to help your managers stay on top of whatever is changing in your market. It isn’t something you can set aside for years (or even months in some markets). Work it into your plans. You don’t necessarily have to adopt every change, but you do need to be aware of them and form a strategy to either adopt or otherwise deal with them.

While I don’t generally comment on political topics, these issues obviously confound governments as well. Drones, cybersecurity, the gig economy, and the internet in general stick out as obvious examples of areas where governments have struggled to deal with change. There are others – not all related to internet topics. Ask plenty of questions of your candidates.

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Categories
Leadership Management Project Management

Make a game plan, then work it

We’ve been mulling change, prioritization, and getting important tasks done. It’s time to get serious before the holidays distract you. When they’re over, having a ready-to-start game plan will help you get a solid start on the new year. Question is, what should be on your game plan?

Big rocks

We’ve all probably heard the story about putting the big rocks in the jar before adding pebbles, sand, & water.

The story resonates because we remember a time when we left the big rocks till later & then disappointed someone by missing a deadline, or being unable to fulfill a commitment.

These disappointments, failures or what have you often happen at least in part because we didn’t deal with the big rocks first. Old news for Covey followers, but worth a reminder when making a game plan.

A game plan of three things

I suggest starting with three big tasks. Looking at the list of tasks you want to accomplish in the next year, which three should have the most impactful and positive strategic result to your company over the long term?

Think about it. Discuss it with your team. Decide.

Consider the possible causes of failure. Some call this a “pre-mortem”. Make sure your game plan includes steps to defuse these issues or prevent them from becoming a problem. Think about the essential accomplishments needed to complete these tasks. Make sure everyone knows what these points are & that someone has direct responsibility to monitor them.

Painting the building may not be one of your three things, but it could be. I can recall on more than one occasion seeing a restaurant whose building had clearly been ignored for many years – and wondering if they handle food safety with the same level of care.

Up next – figure out how long these tasks will take. You need to know if your game plan is reasonable. This is not the place for fantasy.

On guesstimates

People are terrible at estimating how long a task will take. Eventually, some figure out a system for accurately estimating how long work will take because they got burned, fired, etc). This is particularly true in the technology business, but we aren’t alone.

Why is that?

We’re too optimistic about the pace we can maintain. We rarely bother to consider that we may run into an issue that we’ve not dealt with before – and the research, work (plus rework) & testing to resolve it takes time. These episodes don’t typically happen just once in a big project – which we also don’t consider.

We often discount the possibility of interruptions for urgent tasks that, while not of high importance, still must take precedence for a few hours or day. Naturally, we forget how many times this has happened based on our history, industry, team, etc.

Some folks estimate something, then “double it and add four”. Maybe that builds enough buffer into the estimate, but it’s still a wild guess with little more than gut feel to back it up. “Double/triple it” is a pretty good indication that you put insufficient thought into your estimate.

In some environments, you’ll find people will give an “instant” estimate to stop the “How long?” questioning. “You need to do this, how long will it take?” doesn’t usually have a legitimate answer when the task was unknown to you five minutes earlier. Saying “two weeks” without further introspection is simply avoiding persecution… temporarily.

It takes thought to produce a reasonably accurate estimate. This isn’t about making estimates correct to three decimal places. It’s about being reasonably close.

If you promise completion on January 15, you need to have confidence in that date from day one. If you know from the start that you’ll never make the date, don’t know if you can make it, or can only make it if everything goes perfectly – you’re asking for trouble.

Work backward

Big tasks should be broken down into pieces before you can estimate them. Starting from task completion & working backward helps us remember steps we might otherwise forget.

Estimate your list of steps. Break down steps estimated over four hours & estimate the new steps. Four hours seems extreme, but it’s a timeframe we can wrap our heads around. In your line of work, maybe it’s four days. You know where your estimation accuracy really shines.

Make a game plan. Work your plan. Get big things accomplished.

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Categories
Leadership Management Small Business

One thing to prioritize next year

As we approach the new year, you’re probably thinking of things you simply must get done for the coming year to be a big success. It’s a good bet that your “must do next year” list is long. There’s a good chance you’ll never complete it, at least not next year. Look at that list for what it is: Far more than you can get done in a year. That’s OK.

When we sit down and think about all the things we could do for our business, our team, and our customers – there will always be more things than time to do them. While we know this, it discourages us because we didn’t get it all done. To paraphrase Drucker, doing it all isn’t the important thing, doing the right things is.

Reflect & Prioritize

Last week, I mentioned your mile-long ToDo list and segued into managing the pace of change for your team to prepare for today’s discussion. Thinking about the year that’s about to end, how many major things did you get done?

Despite all that work, I’m sure you have improvements to make, new efforts to build and roll out (whatever that means for you), and other work to do. You aren’t alone. We all have a laundry list of important things to grow and improve our businesses.

When I look back on my year, I can think of two fairly major things and a longer list of less-substantial efforts. Probably forgotten is a laundry list of things that took less than a day or perhaps less than a week. I’m pondering this without looking at the system I use to manage such things. I’m sure I have forgotten medium sized projects that I now take for granted. The little things aren’t unimportant, but they aren’t the subject of this discussion. Still, there’s a massive pile of things I haven’t touched.

Sure and I have work to do

Rather than being disappointed about what you didn’t get done, appreciate what you did get done. It starts with looking at what you really can get done next year and how you’ll stay on the path.

I have 786 items in my project manager. Some small, some large. They won’t all be completed next year. Obviously, only a few are worked on at a time.

I prioritize the big things on my list on a weekly basis. The rest get reviewed monthly. Priorities / needs change for all of us. Something that was important six months ago might be irrelevant (or super critical) now. It’s rare that the most important things to complete in the next year will change, but it happens.

Your cycle of review / prioritize might be different, but it’s still needed. Imagine if next year you complete the three (or six) biggest items on your list. Today, that might seem crazy (“Crud, I have 780 to go”), but what impact will the six biggest items have? Only you know.

Yeah, but the Jones’

You may see other businesses getting a ton of new things done or perhaps more big changes than you could possibly do. Don’t think you don’t stack up, or that you aren’t as good as them. They may have more time, free capital, staff, or whatever. It doesn’t matter. Don’t get trapped in the comparison thing. Remember that what you see is only part of the story. You have no idea if they’ve made unsustainable decisions to accomplish what you see them doing.

Your ToDo list will live a long time. It will grow and shrink repeatedly. There will be big things and little things. They’re important in their own context, but they aren’t the biggest thing.

While getting it all done, remember to prioritize being a better you next year than you were this year. If you need a daily reminder in your calendar to do the things that make this happen, so be it.

Challenge your team to do the same and help them get there. Show them what you’re doing to improve, even if they need to do something else. Share your struggles and successes so that they know the path isn’t without challenges. Some will need some help figuring out what that means, what to do first / next, and how to get started again after tripping up. Be a leader in that respect, whether you’re the owner or not.

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Categories
Leadership Management

Entrepreneur, self-heal thyself

Have you ever gotten to the office in the morning and found a tool missing that you were planning on using that day? It creates some frustration borne in the inability to do what you’d been planning all along. For some, it might make your work more difficult to do, or delay the finish time. For others, the inability to use a certain tool might turn your day upside down.

Time is more than money

“Time is money”, you might think. “The inability to use this tool is costing me money”, you continue, and you’d be right. Now consider the cost when your entire team is unable to work. In some businesses, you might simply send the team home. While your team isn’t getting anything done, at least they aren’t racking up hourly pay. Small victories, I suppose – but every hour they’re down (even when off the clock), your backlog is growing. Customers who are depending on an on-time delivery based on work you intended to have done today might also find themselves in a pinch. It might be a pretty big deal.

It’s possible that the inability to use a tool in your business today could cost your customer(s) business. They might lose a strategic moment, a customer, or a valuable employee who simply decides they’ve had enough of the frustrating inability to do the work they love.

Do you want to be the vendor putting customers in that situation?

Customers aren’t the only ones

It feels like it might be worse if you do this to a customer. If the impact is solely internal and isn’t detectable by your customers, your team will just have to deal with it. Still, it has a cost. In frustration. In time. In “Really? this machine / tool / system is down AGAIN?”.

At some point, your team is going to lose patience. If the problem is bad enough or happens with enough frequency, you could lose key staff members. The folks you depend on most are likely to be the ones frustrated first. They’re the ones who may have the least tolerance for the working conditions caused by outages or downtime. They’ll perceive these issues as a lack of professionalism, or a lack of concern for their career or ability to make differential pay, or whatever. They simply won’t put up with it at some point.

Dial tones

Remember when you never doubted that when you picked up the phone, you’d hear a dial tone. If you’ve never had a landline, think of it as you do your expectation for electricity or running water. While those things do occasionally have problems, your expectation is that they will always be there.

That’s where notification of problems is helpful, but notification doesn’t make things significantly better. Imagine if you got a text message at 6:45am telling you that all the roads in and out of your town would be closed for 72 hours. Or a text that says “Sorry, no electricity until next Thursday“. Sure, it’s nice to know, but without a correction on the way, your day just got turned upside down.

If your internet is down too often and the vendors available to you are limited, are you going to choose one and simply tolerate the cost of downtime? Why not choose two or more who aren’t dependent on the same infrastructure? It may cost a bit more, but so does a few hours (or worse, days) of downtime.

Self-healing

Notification is old news. If a system can monitor systems, assets, working conditions (etc) and notify you of availability problems, why stop there? Why not enable these systems to correct the problem? Can your systems be setup to repair a failing systems, restart it, automatically dispatch service people, etc?

These issues should be part of your risk assessment. If power outages are a frequent thing, you’re need to weigh the cost / benefit of uninterruptible power supplies, a generator, or some other solution. If machinery / tool breakdowns are a significant impact, should you have spares on site? Can you work out an arrangement to have temporary replacements provided / rented? If there is a possibility of contention for rented resources, can you pay extra to make sure your needs take priority, get delivered first, etc?

Your team, your business partners, and your customers see your systems, equipment, & infrastructure as an extension of you. If they can’t depend on those things to be in place and working, they can’t depend on you.

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Categories
Employee Training Leadership Management

Mental errors

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

Coaching?

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

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

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

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

A tie to business?

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

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

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

It’s on the leader

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

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

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