Categories
Customer relationships Employees Entrepreneurs

A hero always has work

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

”I’m not a hero”

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

There are other ways to be a hero.

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

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

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

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

Every business has work for heroes.

Who are you a hero to?

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

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

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

Change canoes to be a hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

Categories
Employees Entrepreneurs Ideas Improvement

Feeling stuck?

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

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

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

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

Why “stuck”?

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

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

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

Figure out what’s next

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

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

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

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

I don’t know the first step!

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

That’s how journeys work.

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

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

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

Being stuck is hard

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

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

Photo by Tomas Tuma on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Management

Why employees leave

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

Why they leave

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone else leaves?

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

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

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

I don’t have time for this

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

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

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

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

It makes them leave.

Opportunity is here & there

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

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

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

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

Photo by Olivier Collet on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Entrepreneurs Leadership

Keep looking for lessons

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

Communication lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look for the teachers

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for lessons

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

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

Keep looking.

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Categories
Employees Leadership

Shadow leadership

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

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

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

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

Danger has trailing indicators

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

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

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

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

Shadow leadership is often born of neglect

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

Shadow leadership has similar roots.

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

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

Until someone steps up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some leaders won’t ask

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

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

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

Situationally aware

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

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

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

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

Categories
Banking Employees Entrepreneurs

Boomer business for sale

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

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

Boomer business closures

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

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

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

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

JP Morgan Chase analysis of U.S. Census data

Why this matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collaboration required

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

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

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

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

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Categories
customer retention Sales

Maturity matters

Have you spent any time looking at the differences between your newest customers and the customers who have been with you for years or decades? I’m not speaking of age, but of their maturity.

Imagine asking your customers “Why did y0u buy from us vs every other option you had, including buying nothing?” A new customer is likely to say something like “you offer the options we needed at a reasonable price”, and / or that your reputation helped them make the choice.

The “old” ones

However, the customer you’ve had for decades might respond that “you were the only one who had the product / service at the time”. While it’s possible that you’re still the only supplier, it’s unlikely that is the situation today. So why are these long time customers still around?

If the product you provide has a recurring income component, or you sell something consumable that will be purchased repeatedly (food, a service, supplies, raw materials, etc), ask your long-time customers an additional question: “I get that we were the first – but you still use us. Why? What’s kept you from switching to another vendor?”

While it’s great that they’re still around, their continued use of your solutions is not likely because you were the first vendor they bought from. The reasons they stick around are the same reasons that you might be able to flip a customer from another vendor. These reasons are also important for customer retention, so listen closely. Ask why when you get an answer. Keep asking why, if it makes sense. Dig deep on these answers – “anyone” can close a sale. The key is closing them and keeping them.

They get started differently

Another difference you might notice between new and long time customers is their maturity as a user with your product / service. I don’t mean that they’re young or old. They might be new users, or they may be long-time users of a particular type of product, whether we’re talking about software, 3D printer resin, garlic, or fertilizer.

What I mean is that some of your customers are new or at least less experienced at using whatever you sell, and others are experts at using whatever you sell. The new customer might be experienced – having switched from another vendor. However, they could be inexperienced, having just gotten started with products / services like yours.

It’s important that you know which type of customer you’re dealing with. The onboarding with these two types of customers almost certainly needs to be different because of the difference in experience and skill / maturity with your product / service. The ability of the sales and support people assigned to these two groups needs to be considered – and you may need to break down the groups with more granularity beyond novice and experienced. A novice support or sales rep assigned to a very mature account might be a good learning opportunity for the rep, but it could be a disaster for customer retention unless you pair them with an experienced mentor for a while.

More than maturity

The differences between these two types of users include more than their product / service use maturity, but that maturity relates directly to the self-described needs of each group. Think about the questions and improvements you receive from customers with lower experience levels vs the requests from mature customers.

Power users tend to ask for more refined features. You have to be careful how you implement these requests. If your product / service becomes so hard to use that novice users get stuck, it can impede your growth. People will gravitate to solutions that are easy to use & simple to get started. Novice customers don’t want to get mired in a swamp, particularly with a new supplier or a new product / service. High maturity customers don’t want a product that’s too simple to serve their advanced needs. It’s a careful balancing act.

A Farewell

Columbia Falls started off the year with a tough loss – the passing of Karl Skindingsrude. It would be an understatement to say that Karl was an enthusiastic promoter of Columbia Falls, her people, and her businesses. It will be tough not seeing him emcee future Night of Lights and Heritage Days parades. Columbia Falls will certainly miss his smile, his enthusiasm, and his service as Columbia Falls’ friendly unofficial ambassador. For me, his passing served as a powerful reminder of where home is.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Categories
Management

Do we dislike consistency?

For the record, I’m not a New England Patriots fan., but I can’t deny that I admire their process. In fact, I think their process is what most Patriot “haters” actually dislike. It’s not necessarily Tom Brady, even if you don’t like that he’s 40ish, looks 30ish, has 0.000003% body fat, a gazillion dollar contract, a supermodel wife, etc. Or that he’s been great at coming back from certain defeat, similar to Roger Staubach, John Elway and a few others. Still, I don’t think that’s it, except maybe for that last minute “miracle” in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks.

The thing about haters seems to be about the team, rather than the coaches, or players (except for Brady). I mean, you might not like how coach Belichick talks to the press (or doesn’t), but it’s tough to dislike his effectiveness. Consider the consistency of the results he’s produced across two decades with more or less a different group of players each year, Brady notwithstanding.

Perhaps there are all sorts of reasons to dislike the Patriots. Ultimately, I think it’s because their process produces fairly consistent results for two decades. Their process produces wins when we think they shouldn’t.

Process yields results

So what’s the point of the football talk? When a team (business or sports) consistently does well over a long period of time, there will be haters.

Consider the consistency of processes and results across your entire business. Now think about how these results impact customers and vendors. Customers despise inconsistency. If you ask your customers, what area of your business is the most consistent and most frustrating, what would their answer be? Think about your pet peeves with your vendors. Do you mirror them to your customers?

You may be aware of areas where your business is a pain to deal with. It may be due to results, services, delivery, and/or quality being inconsistent. Your opinion of what’s inconsistent isn’t the only one that matters. Your customers might have thoughts on that – and you should ask. While it’s good to work on improving the consistency of the things you’ve identified, it’s a really good idea to discuss the topic with your customers. A good time to do it: when they’re already complaining to you. You’ve already got them to open up and tell you what’s going wrong. You might think you should avoid giving them more reason to rip on you, but it gives you more chances to respond and repair the relationship.

Machines & Robots

You may not want to be “hated” like the Patriots, but it could happen. If you are doing right by your customers, employees, contractors, and anyone else involved for an extended period of time, it’s possible. Even so, the hate you might get from some people is their problem, not yours.

When your company’s success takes up more space in the competition’s minds than working toward their own success, that’s clearly not your problem. Your problem (challenge, really) is to get your company to the point where that could happen. The path to success involves a lot of things – and one of them is a significant increase in the consistency of what you do.

At some point, your company and your people might be seen as “a machine” or “robots” because of their consistency. As long as your customers don’t see them that way because they’re inflexible and stone-faced, you’re fine. To some, looking like a “machine” or a “robot” is a negative. To others, it means your team is well trained and you have systems in place to minimize mistakes.

Consistency Fatigue

If a competitor doesn’t like you and your business because of the consistency of the results your business delivers, much less the friendliness and skillfulness of your people, it isn’t your problem. Deep down, I think that’s the problem with the Patriots. Yes, most fans can look back over the years and remember when their favorite team lost to the Patriots in a game they “shouldn’t have lost”. Some of it might be that people are tired of seeing them at or near the top of the heap. This year, they got what they wanted.

Strive to produce consistently high quality results, coaching, mentoring, training, and execution. Let the haters hate.

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.

Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash