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Leading change

Listen closely to how today’s business and political leaders talk about change. How many of them are talking about preparing their businesses, our cities, our states, and our country (much less the world) for change?

More often than not, their conversations are about slowing down, stopping, or reversing changes – ignoring a future that will arrive whether they like it or not. (No, I’m not referring to the virus.) These leaders might appear to be in charge of leading change (or at least managing our response to it), but most of them aren’t actually doing anything of the sort… not really.

The majority of the conversations are positioned in terms of the good old days, whether that was 10 months, 10 years or half a century ago. A few are talking about a future that will advance at a pace not unlike the pace of the last 20 years. The idea is that we manage an unforeseen next five years with the thinking learned a decade (or three) earlier, expecting the pace of progress (in either direction) of the next five years to match the pace of change of the prior five years.

“There are no situations and no exceptions where a subordinate is ultimately responsible for the performance of a team. It is always the leader’s fault.”

Jocko Willink

Perspective

The problem with trying to manage all this with thinking from the good old days, or with thinking formed while working with the pace of change over the last 20 years, is that these approaches fail to recognize the current reality: That the pace of change is increasing constantly.

While the jaded might think this perspective is intentional, I suspect most of it isn’t. Some of it is a lack of vision. These folks are too tightly coupled to a reality / situation they need or want to defend, even if it’s from another time and place. I’m speaking broadly here: not specifically about any one business, personal situation, financial position / viewpoint, etc. We have to be very, very careful how we choose business and political leaders as we move forward. Look back at how technology and automation changes have caught leaders and groups of leaders (like Congress) completely off guard.

An obvious and somewhat recent example is that they’ve had to react well after the fact to the impact of the internet, robotics, genome technology, etc.

As an example, is the internet a utility? (because that means we can put an existing administrative organization and rules in charge of it) Is it a service? Is it a monopoly? Is it a right? Or do we decide that it’s another kind of telephone call so that we can use all the old phone regulations to manage it? (and thus, protect it or ruin it, depending on your outlook). Look back at rural electrification for clues.

Our leadership choices become more important every day because of the increasing pace of change. The virus has helped a lot of people understand how exponential change works. When exponential change takes hold, 15 quickly becomes 300, and in the space of a couple weeks becomes 30,000 then 100,000 and so on.

What we’re ill prepared for from a leadership perspective is that change itself is changing at an exponential pace.

Important at all levels

It isn’t important solely at the Federal level. It’s important at every level from the Feds all the way down to a seemingly innocuous city / county position on a board. Imagine that a local county board member considering an important decision. Does it matter if their vote on a health topic is based on their evaluation of information collected by qualified, highly-experienced, trusted people in the county, or is it OK if the decision is made based on the Greeks’ four humors?

Let me simplify this a bit. Is it a bad idea to eat week old sushi? Does it depend on the status of a diner’s humors? Whether the topic is sushi aging, inoculations, water rights, or traffic circles – do you want someone whose mindset is mired in the 1700s making those decisions for you?

Dealing with change isn’t easy. As humans, we tend to avoid it by our very nature. As Chris Hogan says “Nobody likes change, but everyone likes improvement.” Even so, leading change – usually in advance – is leadership’s job – whether they like it or not.

It’s not hard to look around and find examples that show how difficult it is for leaders at all levels to keep up with the changes that have occurred over since 1980 (OMG was that really 40 years?). Compare not just the changes between 1940 and 1980 to the changes between 1980 and 2020, but the pace of change in those two periods.

Now consider that we’ve even accomplished many of the things many people expected of us 80 or even 60 years ago. Where are the flying cars?

Influence & management

The easiest place to see this is in emerging industries. Look at software, computers, drones, the internet, medicine, or really – anything we’ve struggled to keep up with in recent decades. Some industries have benefited from the lack of understanding by elected / appointed leaders, even though this may not have served us well over the long term.

Sometimes those industries become massive, wielding significant influence ($ talks) before leaders manage to figure out what they do, how they do it, and what the impacts might be. This can be a good, bad, or neutral thing, and is probably split across all three. The important observation is that we need the kind of leadership capable of dealing with a future that’s coming whether we like it or not.

We’ve all seen an industry that does something incorrectly, builds a low quality product (or a product with a serious flaw) that causes a substantial loss of value, loss of life, etc. It’s rare to hear that leadership has prepared a company in advance for these issues by rethinking how they design, build and deploy products and services *before* they launch, but it does happen.

The normal context of corrective action and/or putting safety corrections in place “What can we do so that never happens again?” It’s as if we’re completely incapable of theorizing, thinking a process through from beginning to end, testing in real world situations, validating results without using situational ethics, etc. While the law of unintended consequences can find a way to make the best of intentions seem inept, we shouldn’t empower it. We’re often more concerned about how to handle it the public relations angle or “optics”.

When it makes sense to consider how we’re going to make sure something never happens again, it tends to be spoken of and executed in the same mindset and terminology that created the problem. Put those two together, and you have a cadre of business and political leaders that are wholly unprepared for the future, and in fact, don’t seem to recognize what’s going on around them. We can do better.

It’s impossible to go back

No matter how wonderful or awful you felt back during the good ole days, regardless of which decade that identifies, the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s (etc) are all but irrelevant to use as a comparison when trying to lead people, companies, and governments today.

It’s impossible to go back. Even if we could, the things about those times that we and leaders have conveniently forgotten about the good ole days could hit us with the force of an angrily swung two by four.

We conveniently forget that change was difficult back then, just as it is today. Maybe you were a kid at the time, or maybe you’re old enough to have been a leader back then. Either way, there’s no doubt that your mind has hidden the hard parts of that decade (not to mention the really hard parts). It’s probably not intentional, but simply how our memory works. Ask your grandparent or parent about your favorite decade. They may remember it differently than you do.

If your leaders want to take your company or your community back to one of those decades because they thought it was easier to lead in that decade, bear in mind that you get ALL of that decade – not simply the parts folks fondly recall.

Do we outlaw the things we blame for today’s difficulties? Are you going to outlaw electrical power? Are you going to outlaw wireless communications? Are you going to outlaw the use of silicon? (ie: to make computer chips) If so, do we also outlaw the use of any sort of technology to improve our lives? What about improvements in clothing, food, medicine, etc? What about radial tires? Plastic? Radar? Jet-Skis? Color TV?

That’s what leaders are talking about when they suggest it’d be best to go back to those times. When your leaders say they’d like to take us back to some chosen decade, what they’re really saying is that they can’t cope with what’s going on today (or that they’re not willing to try) – and that they believe the same about you.

Tomorrow’s change is the job

If they can’t handle today, how will leaders handle what’s going to happen tomorrow? It doesn’t even matter whether the “unhandle-able” thing is positive or negative.

To be sure, it’s not just the negative things. It’s also the positive accomplishments that industry, groups, and individuals create. People lose their minds over the fact that some change is going to impact them. Rather than consider the possibility of the impact of those changes, they simply double down, refuse to accept them, and do everything they can to stop the change from happening, often without pausing to learn anything about the change other than what they were told by a self-proclaimed expert on Facebook.

Leading through tomorrow’s change is leadership’s job.

As an example, we (collectively) worry about the rise of self-driving (autonomous or semi-autonomous) cars, forgetting that cargo ships, airplanes, spacecraft, and other things have “self-driven” for years. Most of the deaths and “accidents” involving these technologies tend to happen when humans turn them off, override them, or use them improperly. To be sure, these situations are not limitedt to that. Technology failures exist, and the introduction of human error, ego, and/or over-confidence don’t help matters.

Consider the number of plane crashes caused by pilot error. The number is fairly small, but the percentage is not so small. Depending on the source of the data, the percentage of crashes determined to be caused in some way by pilot error is 75-80% (Google it), with the remaining 20% or so mostly related to equipment malfunction or weather. The number of actual crashes is small, thanks to a combination of technology refined over many years and flights, combined with a group of highly trained, highly experienced, very disciplined people (flight crews).

As romantic as it might seem, do we really want to go back to the DC-3 or the Ford Tri-Motor?

Change is everywhere

Earlier, I referred to the need for leaders who can handle rapid change all the way from the Federal to local levels. You might have thought that it’s overkill to expect local leadership to need the skills, vision, and insight to cope with these things. Perhaps it seems we don’t need that because we don’t do that sort of work around here.

Thing is, that kind of change is happening almost everywhere.

While there have been all sizes of software companies in Montana for at least 25 years, that’s not the technology I’m referring to. A decade or so ago, a different sort of technology company started popping up around Montana. We had energy storage technology firms, cryogenics firms, and more recently, a nanomedicine company.

Yes, nanomedicine. In other words, researching and creating solutions to medical problems using tools and technology and treatments created at the nanotechnology scale.

Nanotechnology is the branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers, especially the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. What’s a nanometer? One billionth of a meter. In other words, cut your yard stick into one billion pieces lengthwise and you’ll be close. A billion can be hard to grasp. If you cut that yard stick into a million pieces, to get a billion, you’d have to slice those million slices one thousand times. We’re talking small.

This is the kind of change that’s happening everywhere. It’s the change that business and political headers must be able to discuss and encourage, not merely tolerate and be aggravated about.

The research and the solutions that nanomedicine yields is performed by people with PhDs, undergrad degrees, and in a few cases, even undergrad students, programmers and clerical folks. As you might expect, there are salespeople and other not-as-technical roles. This work doesn’t happen just in NYC, LA, Silicon Valley, Asia, India, and the Harvard / MIT corridor, but right here in your state.

Not limited to new industries

These changes are not solely the domain of “super high-tech” industries. Look at the advancement of mechanized, semi-automated, and automated timber processing over the last few decades. 30 years ago, those were a figment of someone’s imagination.

Today, it wouldn’t surprise me if somebody is working on an autonomous version of that equipment that will automatically understand what parcel of land it’s on, what species the tree is, how old the tree is, what grade the tree’s wood is most likely to be, etc.

This team of machinery could choose the highest value trees to harvest, present them to another robot who would transport it to another robot which will prepare it for transport, and put it on a truck. Maybe that truck will be autonomous. Another group of robots might do slash cleanup, and still another would return after slash cleanup to replant. All of this is probably old news to someone working on timber harvesting technology.

While that doesn’t kill the timber business, it’ll certainly have a major impact on it. For one, the lumber business will become even more capital intensive. A yard full of autonomous robotic equipment that can do this work won’t be cheap. The development and testing processes alone will be incredibly expensive.

Such equipment would render the timber business far less human intensive, even though the currently available generation of felling and harvesting equipment has already lowered manpower requirements. Just look at the machines that a single operator can run and how much work they can get done in a day. For the specialist walking those acres and working today’s equipment, these changes may feel like a threat. A phrase like “lowered manpower requirements” doesn’t hide the fact that a family’s breadwinner still needs work.

New products, old products

Leadership includes helping that industry, its workers, and affected communities adjust, and prepare to thrive in a new future rather than simply giving up and leaving everyone to fend for themselves. Leaders help create a better future, even if it’s a slightly (or substantially) different one.

Some leaders might think that it’ll take 20 years for that robotic equipment to make these imagined industry changes become reality, so they think they have plenty of time. They might be thinking “I won’t even be in leadership or political office 20 years from now, so why bother even thinking about it?” However, when we look at the rate of change in the capability and price of robotic technology over the last five years, “that’ll probably take 20 years” starts to seem a bit ridiculous.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see intelligent robots whose harvest is planned by a professional forester who reviewed robotically collected timber data from the site. This might involve some sort of mapping expert, even though the foresters I know are mapping experts. Maybe there will be someone to guide those robots similar to how a drone pilot guides a drone flying over the dangerous territory.

Perhaps this robot will be able to sense certain kinds of animal habitat, human habitat, watersheds, legal boundaries, bodies of water, etc. Maybe it will be able to detect data on animal movement (etc) and send it back to the “home office”. It’s possible that combining that data with other piece of data from some other machine or location could prove valuable to the logging company, the landowner, or someone else. Land has many uses and so does the data observed about it.

Where do the jobs go?

Somebody’s going to need to know how to repair those robots. We’re going to need to know how to train a company’s people to operate and maintain them, program them, etc. The vendor who creates them can educate them on all the different species that they would want to sell them to, you know, for customers who would need them. But there’s always localized information about that sort of thing.

“Localized information” could be data that comes from and/or is refined by people – perhaps from the same people who have walked that land for years. It may involve localized robotic programming or data curation of some kind involving a species expert. Robots will need educated timber firmware or something like that. The data will constantly change as weather, moisture, harvest, growth and other data changes.

Where does that leave the truck driver and the folks that are out in the forest doing this work? While some of it is dangerous, high-risk work, it’s also good paying work. Leaders can’t abandon those people, but they also can’t stop the change. Helping employees, communities, and companies adjust to these changes on a reasonable timeline before a crisis occurs is what change-ready leaders must do.

Capital talks

This is not just a leadership challenge. It’s a challenge for education and financial systems. The ability to see where their industry is going, and help students and employees avoid getting themselves pigeonholed in a career that’s disappearing is the responsibility of everyone involved – education, leadership, and the employees themselves.

There are numerous financial implications. You buy a house, a car and perhaps you buy or lease a logging truck. You hire a bunch of folks to get out in the woods and do the work, and then you find a competitor found a way to get their hands on one of these automated timber robots. Their margins might suddenly be much higher than yours. Either they make far more profit, or they undercut your price. You’re stuck because of your overhead.

What do you do? You don’t have a few million to buy robots. One solution is to look back at how these problems were solved in the past.

Cotton gin & timber math

Consider Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. Only the most financially successful farmers could afford cotton gins when they were first available. Others had to compete with those who had the mechanical gins. Whitney figured out his prospective customers had a capital problem, so his company rented them to farmers for a piece of their crop. That allowed his company to grow, while getting his machinery into the hands of farmers who would struggle to compete without one. The last thing he needed was a shrinking, consolidating industry.

Likewise, robotics is a capital intensive business. It takes a lot of time and capital to design, prototype, test and manufacture robots. It requires engineers to design, people to test, programmers to program, foresters and others to identify all the necessary species, collect and refine the data, and so on. It requires buying robots that manufacture your robots, and people to install, manage, repair, and monitor that manufacturing process.

Once these machines work, the math is difficult to ignore. (Sound familiar?) If a set of robots can, in a week, do the work 100 men complete in a week, then someone will start doing the math. If they don’t, they’ll soon have to compete with someone who WILL do the math. The math will change quickly as the robots increase their productivity.

“The math” means figuring the full extrapolated cost of those hundred men, their equipment, their fuel / food / medical care, training, pensions, health benefits, managers, supervisors, transportation and so on – then comparing it to the traditional cost of getting that work done. Somewhere in there, there are fixed and variable costs. At some point, the robots will make sense financially, or maybe they won’t. Time will tell. In some industries, they will. We’ve already seen that.

If they do make sense, the robot sellers can take a page from Whitney’s sales manual and say “Look, you don’t have to pay anything up front, simply pay me a percentage of your haul once you get paid.” At that point, the game changes.

On-ramps are critical

If leaders wait until the game has changed, it’s too late.

When some of these employees and contractors find that they aren’t needed anymore, or that the number of companies who do need them are steadily shrinking, it’s starting to be too late. At first, some of the people are needed for fewer shifts. At some point, the work they do might not be needed anymore.

If we’ve not prepared for that, and are unable (or unwilling) to prepare people to be ready for those transitions, we (and they) are going to get a surprise. You may think it doesn’t affect you because of what you do, but these dollars flow freely in the community. It will affect you at some point, even if the effect is caused by career changes for someone who lives 1500 miles away.

It isn’t about being ready for a legal 60 day layoff warning requirement, so you can decide it’s time to find something to train them for. That’s too late. It’s about being ready for the new thing no later than when a substantial industry change starts to gain traction. A 30, 60, or 90 day delay / break in the ability to generate income can destroy the economy of many families, despite the best of intentions by that family to save, etc. We’re at the early stage of that as virus-related layoffs accelerate. Skilled people need to be ready to transition in advance. They can’t be trained overnight. The leading / bleeding edge folks will see the benefits early. They’ll quietly train their own people and implement these changes.

Not only do people need the income because they’ve got a mortgage to pay and kids to feed (etc), but there will be immediate needs to deliver on the commitments of companies that put these pieces of equipment in the field (and those who don’t). You can’t wait 60 or 90 days or longer for somebody to become expert enough to do the new work. Equipment breaks down all the time. It needs to be configured, transported, maintained, and deployed today. Companies at the leading edge of that transition will need trained people to do this work. Leaders need to help create the on-ramps that help them get there.

Change doesn’t care

Change doesn’t care about our feelings, our likes & dislikes, much less the tender underside of our comfort zone.

The pace of change is even less considerate. The key is not to fight it, but to leverage it. The one thing you can’t do is stop it.

Choose leaders who can handle change. Cultivate new leaders to engage with it.

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Customer relationships Employees Entrepreneurs

A hero always has work

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

”I’m not a hero”

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

There are other ways to be a hero.

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

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

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

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

Every business has work for heroes.

Who are you a hero to?

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

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

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

Change canoes to be a hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Employees Entrepreneurs Ideas Improvement

Feeling stuck?

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

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

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

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

Why “stuck”?

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

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

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

Figure out what’s next

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

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

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

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

I don’t know the first step!

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

That’s how journeys work.

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

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

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

Being stuck is hard

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

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

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Employees Leadership Management

Do small teams need good leadership?

Smaller companies are seldom known for having good (or even great) leadership. This isn’t because small companies don’t have great leaders. Instead, it’s because they are rarely discussed. Someone might talk about the business owner with four employees whose home-grown consulting business is doing good work and growing steadily. But do we hear about her being an amazing leader? Not often. It could lead you to believe that very small businesses don’t need good leadership. Don’t fall for it.

Are YOU a great (or good) leader?

At this point, you might be wondering if you’re a good leader. It isn’t solely about having a good relationship with your staff. One way to see how effective your leadership is, is to leave the office. Does the office work better when you’re gone? Does the office get less done when you’re gone? Do the wheels fall off when you’re gone?

Some teams get more done when their leader is out of the office because the leader is a distraction. This usually takes the shape of interrupting the team frequently to check on project statuses. Sometimes it goes a bit further. If your people are regularly being asked questions about work you know they have the expertise to do, you’re probably micromanaging them.

Does your team understand the big picture? If a stranger asked them what their company does, would they represent the company as you’d hope? Would they describe the company in terms of their job? Would they describe the company in terms of the good they do and how they help their customers?

Does each team member understand why their work is critical to the day-to-day success of the company? Do they understand how less than ideal performance in their department impacts other departments and the overall success of the company? Do they know exactly what they are responsible for? Not “Oh, I’m sure they do”, but “Yes, they have specific deliverables, duties, and expected outcomes for each day, week, month.” Are these things discussed regularly with each team member?

Get rid of the gaps

If you’ve decided that you need to get better at leading your team – what’s the next step? Go back over the previous section. Become a much better communicator. Leave nothing to assumptions, which doesn’t mean “Be a nag.”

You might be thinking “My people know what they are supposed to do.” That might be the case, but the truth is probably different. I suspect if you sit down with each member of your team and discuss your specific expectations, there’s going to be some gaps between what you expect and what they think you expect. Is that fair to them? Does it serve you and the company well?

If you find yourself frustrated with a team member, think specifically about what’s frustrating you. Are you absolutely, positively sure that they know they should be doing whatever you’re frustrated about? Are you sure that they know exactly what your expectations are? “They should know”, you might think. If you’ve haven’t explicitly told them, they might have the wrong idea entirely. They might not even realize how critical a seemingly minor expectation is because you haven’t explained how their work fits into the big picture. Rather than stew about it, take a minute to discuss it with them.

Make sure your expectations match their understanding of the job. Be sure they understand how their work fits into the entire process. Make sure every department knows *exactly* what is expected of them. If even one of your expectations are unstated, that can fester into a bad situation. Unstated assumptions can kill a company.

Water that garden

If you plan to grow, you need to cultivate the crops you’ve planted. It’s no different with your staff. As your team grows, someone (probably multiple someones) are going to stand out as up and coming leaders for your team. The point is, this isn’t solely about your leadership skills. Your ability to grow leaders and get out of the way is key to your company’s future growth.

As you grow, I guarantee the team will eventually outgrow your ability to manage it. People who have studied leadership and management in the real world will usually quote numbers from five to fifteen direct reports as the limit of the number of people a single person can manage effectively. Don’t wait until things get crazy to make a move.

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Employees Hiring Leadership Management

Where to find tech candidates from underrepresented groups

Earlier this week, someone asked on a local Slack group about where they could find a more diverse set of candidates for a tech job opening vs. what they might find at the standard “big” job sites (Indeed, Monster, etc). The job sounds ideal. Good company, almost everyone working remote, Kubernetes expertise needed (ie: not stale technology).

I reworded the question a little and passed it along on Twitter. The response was pretty decent, so I thought I’d document it here in case readers have a similar desire to expand their reach when seeking out candidates. The responses below are in the order I received them and link to the author’s tweet in case you have questions, comments, etc. As I receive additional replies, I’ll add them here.

Note: A reader pointed out that there is a significant recruiter fee to place a job ad on techladies, so be a good consumer and read the fine print as the reader did.

Update: 2019-08-07: An AWS-related grant passed by me, so here’s the details: https://reinvent.awsevents.com/community/we_power_tech_grant/

Categories
Employees Hiring Sales

Been ghosted or simply ignored?

Being ghosted describes a conversation where one of the participants simply stops communicating without saying “Bye”, etc. They simply go silent, or disappear. Amazingly, the place it’s easiest to find is during job hunting (or hunting for someone to fill a position).

Back in the age of the dinosaur (or at least the fax machine), it was common courtesy to tell a Human Resources person or recruiter that you were no longer interested in their position. Even if this happened by email, you did it. If they treated you well during the process, you might even tell them why you’re heading another direction.

Likewise, it was also common courtesy for a recruiter or Human Resources person to tell all their candidates that their position had either been filled or they’d closed the position for some other reason.

When a job candidate decides they don’t want or need your open position, many simply stop communicating with you. The same behavior has become common for recruiters and HR people when they lose interest in a candidate, fill a position, or decide not to hire. The ghosted party hears “radio silence“.

Rude, inconsiderate, selfish, stupid, etc.

I find this simply remarkable, not to mention rude, inconsiderate, selfish, stupid, lacking in vision … you get the idea.

You’ll hear excuses from both groups including these:

We don’t have time to connect with each candidate to tell them the position is filled.

I don’t have time to contact each recruiter / company to tell them I’ve taken another position or have lost interest in their opening.

Horse biscuits. Weak, lazy, excuses.

When ghosting is a good idea

Here’s where it might be a good idea for a recruiter / HR person to ghost someone:

If you never want to have a conversation with that candidate ever again, nor a business they might someday own, nor with anyone they know.

Why? Because many of them are going to tell all of their family, peers, and friends that they were ghosted – and who did it. You can presume that the reputation of your recruiting firm or your company are going to be stained by this behavior. In the meantime, unplug the resume scanner and start working with candidates like a real person – if you want to hire real people rather than the presentation version of someone.

Here’s where it might be a good idea to ghost a recruiter or HR person:

Never.

Even if they did things during the selection process that were illegal or stupid (ie: “Are you and your spouse planning to start a family?”), wave good bye. If you feel particularly gracious, tell them why. Remember, the person you’re dealing with might be forced to perform in that way. While it doesn’t mean it’s right, they may need that job for now. You never know where your paths might cross again in the future.

In the best of situations, if you explain why you don’t feel the position is a fit, at least they’ll know. Depending on what you tell them, you may find that they have another opening that makes more sense.

Why do they ghost you?

Sometimes, we get ghosted even if we didn’t seem to do anything wrong – or so we thought.

Does someone call & leave a message? Call them back. If you email them because you don’t like to talk on the phone – you’re asking to be ghosted.

Did they email to ask a question about your product? Email them a reply that fits their question. If you call them, “handwave” their question, then dive into your standard pitch, expect to be ghosted.

Solution: Return the communication using the medium they used unless they specifically ask for something different.

People do sometimes email or text and ask you to call. Maybe they remembered they want to talk to you and don’t want to forget to ask for a call, but can’t talk right then. They could be sitting at a long stop light and suddenly realize they need what you sell (so they quickly send a text before the light changes, asking you to call sometime).

When you first connect with a contact, ask them what their preferred method of communication is. If it’s by phone or text, ask them the best time of day. You want to ask for a phone appointment during that time, not when you feel like it, or when your tickler went off.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Management

Do they know they work for an airline?

A recent graduation had both sets of grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle flying from the Midwest into two different airports, converging on Spokane. On the morning of my mother’s flight through Dallas, a thunderstorm with a tornado-like attitude stretched from Austin to Missouri. My mother’s flight to Dallas took a circuitous path around New Orleans, past Houston, into Austin. After an hour in Austin, her flight left for Dallas and landed there too late to allow her to catch her connecting flight to Missoula. A re-route through Seattle changed her arrival in Missoula from 11am to midnight, making a 22 hour travel day. Her baggage was a different story.

We all have baggage

After all that, Mom’s bag didn’t make it to Missoula. Given that her rerouted flight terminated on a different airline & was booked to Kalispell by the original airline (later corrected by Alaska in Seattle), it wasn’t surprising.

I called Alaska baggage in Seattle the next morning. The data said the bag was in Missoula the night before, but that didn’t seem right. Even so, it required a visit to the airport – and that’s where the magic started.

Shawna (an Alaska gate agent) in Missoula took my details & filed a claim. She said the bag was en-route to Kalispell. Shawna sent instructions to return the bag to Seattle on the next flight, then forward it to Spokane since we were heading there to meet the rest of the family. Then Shawna took the first of several unexpected steps. She gave me her direct number in Missoula, telling me she’d be off in a few hours but someone else (whose name I forget) would help me if I called after she left for the day. She also wrote them a note to make sure they checked on the bag. Then she gave me the direct number for her peer in Spokane’s Alaska baggage office and the direct number for the Seattle office, just in case.

Expectations

My expectations were mixed. I’d had re-routed luggage before. Eventually, it finds me. The process is frustrating until the bag arrives. This was different. About noon, my phone rang. Trevor (Alaska baggage) said the bag was en-route to Spokane. He asked if I wanted to pick it up or have it delivered. He took my delivery address and said “Call me if it doesn’t arrive by seven” then he texted me an additional number as a fall back.

About six pm, I received a call from Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. The woman said the bag was out for delivery and would be delivered soon. About 15 minutes later, it arrived.

My bag delivery expectations were met. Despite having flown a good bit, I’ve never lost a bag. Today, a bag’s barcode is scanned so often that it would take odd circumstances to make one disappear without a trace.

My expectations of the people were a different story. I had never experienced such attention to detail and effort to make sure I always had a local phone number and a name to ask for when tracking down a bag. I was never on hold where “my call was important yet they were experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes” repeated incessantly. Instead, my calls were answered in a ring or two & always handled well.

Uncle!

The uncle arrived at midnight on the evening of the arrival of my mom’s bag. He came in on a different airline (not Alaska) but his bag didn’t. He spent much of the next day on hold with his airline’s central baggage office. They didn’t seem to know where his bag was or when it’d arrive. After dinner, I suggested he call Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. What could it hurt? He was skeptical, but called them anyway and, unlike my experience, had to leave a message.

Five minutes later, he received a return call from Alaska baggage. Even though his airline was unsure where his bag was, the woman said she had his bag. He could come pick it up or she would have it delivered. He’d have clean clothes for graduation in the morning.

I don’t know what Alaska does differently, but their people don’t seem to know they work for an airline. Does your team act like they work in your industry, or do they provide service to a higher standard?

PS: the Monday after all this happened, Mom received a discount code for a future flight “for her trouble”.

Photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash

Categories
Employees Management

Knowledge loss – The pain of brain drain

I had a conversation about “brain drain” with an old friend this week. “Brain drain” is the loss of business-specific and/or industry-specific knowledge suffered due to employee attrition. When experienced people leave a company, they take their brains with them – including all their knowledge and experience. Losing specialized knowledge can be painful even when someone isn’t moving to a competitor or starting a competitive firm.

My friend’s customers tend to be large, with thousands of employees. He has a tool for collecting data about the workflow, business structures, and processes in these organizations. The data becomes a logical representation of the business – a model. That model (database) describes the company’s jobs, work, roles, “work products”, etc. It’ll eventually help you identify connections between those components of the company. Collecting the data is a significant effort, but this is understandable. Large, complex organizations are extremely difficult to fix, much less keep running on their own. Having a reference for what the company does, how it does those things, and how it communicates is essential. A model or reference allows you to create consistency. It identifies the systems and tools will help the company improve their performance. It serves as a lens that brings the company’s inner machinery into focus. The effort and payoff both grow as the organization size increases. This effort (and it’s price) also mean it’s something a small business would almost never do. 

Small business brain drain – a foregone conclusion?

Brain drain can create nightmares for small businesses as well, but you don’t need massive processes and expensive tools to tackle it. How do you protect yourself from this? Use the same type of process, without the expense.

Identify the roles your team has. In a small business, people tend to wear multiple hats. Each one of those is a role. If you’re small, you might have someone who fills five roles during their work week. What skills and training will a future new hire need to successfully perform this role? What processes and tools will be involved? Is experience and/or training required? Someday you might be big enough to make that role require a full time person. For the processes they must perform in that role, is there a checklist? Is there a form?

Experience hides

Lots of knowledge is buried in undocumented business processes & related timelines. When finally documented, you’ll find innate knowledge that’s been seared into the team from unknown people or situations. There will be “we do it this way but I don’t recall why”. You’ll learn about long-held (possibly valid) assumptions passed down among team members that no one’s documented. Information hides inside experienced people who for years have done their job, refined processes, and trained a new co-workers. Many lessons go undocumented, despite being learned over many years of work. They came from the impact of many small refinements over time, thanks to lessons they learned along the way. This “what and how but not why” is unintentionally hidden from management, carefully sequestered in unwritten job descriptions.

We hide this knowledge in forms and their workflow. It hides in unwritten, but known expectations, and in undocumented metrics that someone here probably understands. Sometimes there’s data available, sometimes there isn’t. Some of this data is never used because we didn’t have the time, tools, or desire to learn from it. Much of this data is documentation of what we and our team members do every day.

Once you identify each role, follow the paper trail in your business. It’ll tell a story. Follow the data. Ask why of your data, your forms, your processes, and your people. Document the answers, the reasons, the surprises, and the gaps. This information has real value, so keep it up to date.

What the hurt looks like

If an experienced team member retires, quits, spends a week in the hospital, or takes a leave to care for a family member this month, how will you…

  • Get their work done.
  • Recover the knowledge of what they did and knew not to do.
  • Meet the deadlines they own.
  • Maintain their contacts/relationships inside/outside the company.
  • Deal with vendors & internal/external customers who are suddenly not being attended to / hassled appropriately / held accountable / cared for / paid / billed, etc.

Someone will leave sooner than you expect or hope. Get ready.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Categories
Employees Management Project Management

Perspective and progress

As the end of the year approaches, it’s a natural time to look back over the past year’s work. Did you make progress? Was the year a success? The source of our motivation has a big impact on how we perceive the year’s work. Did I achieve a financial milestone? Will I get the leadership position I want? Did we reach our sales goals? These are external motivations. Internal motivations may also drive us – such as a need to learn, achieve, better yourself, make fewer mistakes, etc. Neither driving force is the wrong one. Personally, I think a mix of the two serves us well. As we walk the trail through our careers and personal lives, the source and makeup of what motivates us often changes. About 10 years ago, a mentor‘s comment completely changed how I relate to the things I achieve.

The gap on the way to ideal

When we look at our goals or ToDo list, 100% “perfect” completion of every single one on time and on budget is the ideal “destination”. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s rarely realistic. It’s also rarely necessary – at least on the first completion. 

First completion“? Yes, exactly. Few of us knock off a project and find that it’s perfect and never needs another polish, tweak, or modification. Even if the only customer is you, it’s better to complete the job, gather feedback and make another pass to improve your work.

The trouble with 100% completion is we rarely, if ever, achieve it. If 100% completion of your goals is consistently achieved on time and on budget, it often means the goals were watered down. We might extend a timeline, ignore some portion of the budget or loosen quality standards. Doesn’t matter which one.

Looking back at the Apollo project, NASA was charged with getting men safely to the moon and back by the end of the decade. I remember watching the first steps broadcast on a grainy black and white TV at my grandparents’ farm. That was a late night for a young kid in 1969. Yet Apollo wasn’t 100%. An Apollo I launch rehearsal cost the lives of three astronauts. Apollo 13 almost did the same while traveling between Earth and the Moon. NASA achieved the audacious goal Kennedy laid before them, despite not achieving perfect execution. 

The gap between perfect execution and your actual execution is quite often significant. Having the right perspective is critical. 

Perspective and the gap

When we look at the ideal outcome, we’re almost certain to come away disappointed. We expect perfection.  You won’t be happy or satisfied with your efforts when you assess where you are against where you expected to be when everything went perfectly. That space will be filled with regrets about incomplete tasks, tasks that weren’t started, things that didn’t go as planned, etc.

The comment from my mentor paraphrases like this: If you look forward to the difference between what you did and the ideal outcome, there will always be a gap. That gap will always bother you – and it destroys the ambition in some. However, if you look back from where you are to where you started, you’ll find great satisfaction and motivation to charge forward when seeing how far you’ve progressed.

This change in perspective completely changed how I felt about the incomplete / untouched items taunting me from their comfortable home on my Trello board. Strive for 100%. Celebrate your progress, however imperfect. Use your progress as motivation. Keep improving. 

Perspective destruction

When a team’s original goal appears to be within reach, managers often trot out “stretch goals”. Is this done to create a failure that can be held over a team? Stretch goals usually create morale failure from significant progress. Motivation is rarely the outcome. Managers should focus on the 90% your team achieved, rather than the 10% that didn’t get done. It seems natural to do this when you’re a software guy – since we often focus on what’s broken. As a leader, it seems like a great way to repeatedly chip away at the morale of your team by never letting them celebrate or acknowledge accomplishments. The time to focus on the 10% will come soon enough. 

Categories
Employee Training Employees Management

Operations problems

A good bit of what we discuss here relates to day-to-day operations. While a lot of operations probably seems simple and obvious, it’s the number one issue I see in companies. I suspect you’ve experienced, owned or worked at a company whose operations are a disorganized mess. Common problems shouldn’t be common at all, right? Let’s see if we can chip away at a few of these and get your operations polished up.

The under-performer

Somewhere in your company, there’s someone who is “under performing”. Not doing their job, not doing it well, It might be that they’re not doing the work in what their peers would consider a normal amount of time. IE: They’re slow. Slow can be OK for some work, but sometimes it isn’t.

As managers / leaders, this is your responsibility. The cause doesn’t matter. If they aren’t doing their job, it’s because their direct manager isn’t finding out why, attempting to fix it and circling back to hold them accountable. Is their direct manager isn’t doing those things? Ultimately, that manager’s performance is your responsibility. Does the under performer work directly for you? If you aren’t finding out why this is happening and you aren’t holding them accountable, it’s your responsibility. While this may seem like a difficult source of hand-wringing and drama, it doesn’t have to be. 

Sometimes, an employee doesn’t know what is expected of them. Not kidding. You might find this surprising, but a list of duties, deliverables and responsibilities is useful to an employee. Nothing says “This is what you are responsible for. I will be looking these things when I assess the quality of your work.” better than a list. 

Maybe they need training. When you discuss that list of responsibilities with the employee, make sure they are confident that they can achieve those things and have the right skills to make them happen. If they can’t, find training for them.

Training didn’t help. Nothing did.

If training doesn’t improve their performance, a new role might. They might hate some aspect of their work – work that someone else might love to do. Guess who’ll do it better?

Find them a new role that fits who they are, what they can do, what you need, etc. If you can’t do any of that, help them find a role somewhere else. Few “bad hires” are bad people that you’d never recommend to someone else, but they do exist. It takes too long to find and hire a good candidate to simply discard them because you put them in the wrong role, or didn’t train them well. 

EVERYONE else in the department (probably in the company), already knows this person needs a new role, more training, or a different job at a different place. They know you aren’t doing anything about it and they’re not happy about that. They know it affects the security of their job, among other things. They’re right to be disappointed.

Disasters in advance

We’ve all seen these. A big project is coming. There are obvious bumps in the road. No one says a word because predicting disaster is “not being a team player” or similar. To a point, that’s correct. Predicting disaster is of no value, but preventing them is huge. 

There’s a better way. Ask everyone: “What could go wrong? What could cause this project to fail?” Make it clear that it’s a positive thing to produce this list, as you want to avoid the “team player” baggage. Discuss this for each step of the planning, creation, deployment, and ongoing (if any) operational stages. 

Once you have that list, discuss each one. Not only will you be better prepared (and perhaps plug a hole), but you may end up figuring out an issue no one saw when the conversation started. You’ll also help everyone think about hardening their part of the project, no matter what that means. You may find that items on the “What could go wrong?” list end up as a standard task in that kind of project. Would your company benefit if everyone was thinking about these things earlier in the project timeline? 

You may get some responses that make no sense, or that seem silly. Don’t let the crowd shout them down. Imagine that delivering a product is critical to your process and someone suggests that a possible fail point is “MegaSuperBigCo can’t deliver our packages“. Something like this might seem a waste of time, but give them their due. Look back far enough and you’ll find instances where shippers or customs people went on strike. When that happens, packages sit in limbo for weeks or months. If your shipping is international, it can get complex in a hurry. 

Don’t ignore the smallest items on the “What could go wrong?” list. History has proven that the tiniest thing can create a small failure that cascades to a massive one. We don’t always know which tiny thing will disrupt operations, but we can review each one, make note of what prevents that item from causing problems and move on. If it isn’t handled, the affected team should be expected to take care of it and report back when it’s been handled.

Follow through. Few do. 

Have you ever noticed that you get a bunch of work done just before leaving on vacation? Obvious hint: Deadline. Or that your “do this before leaving on vacation” list is essential to making sure that you pack your swimsuit, turn off the stove, and take the dog to the kennel? Obvious hint: Checklist.

Follow through works the same way. You have to be careful that it doesn’t become micro-management, which no one appreciates. 

If someone knows they’re expected to provide a status report every Thursday afternoon, they’re more likely to make better progress on the work involved. Work is a funny thing, it expands to fill the container provided. As Stephen Covey made famous with his four quadrants, it’s easy for urgent and unimportant work to fill the day and displace important work. 

Source: Stephen Covey – 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

It isn’t that this work shouldn’t be done, it’s simply that it isn’t as important as a team has agreed to previously. Otherwise, why would you be expected to provide a project status report next Thursday?

What’s even better than a status report that you ask someone to provide? The status report they provide without being asked.

When you provide a project update to your manager / leader / owner without being asked, you make it clear that you know that work is important AND that you know it’s important that the manager / leader / owner knows how things are progressing. Most managers / leaders / owners don’t want to nag – they simply have to because no one is volunteering the information. Result: They don’t know the status of the operations they’re trying to manage. 

Unknowns make people nervous, especially as deadlines approach. Make sure your team understands that and that you appreciate follow ups so that you can do the work they expect of you.

Post-mortem your disasters

One of the best times to prevent something from happening again is by taking some notes while it’s happening. An in-disaster post-mortem, for lack of a better term.

Oh, I know. You’re too busy wrestling the fire hoses to stop and take a note for 30 seconds. Really though, you’re not.

If this bad thing happens regularly, put a recurring reminder in your calendar for a few days / weeks / months before the event. A simple reminder to deal with that one little thing that defuses a minor disaster is pretty valuable. Example: Before a trade show or big marketing push, contact your credit card company (merchant card processor) and alert them that you might be processing (much?) higher volume than usual. A five minute call is much less hassle than having your merchant account temporarily disabled in the middle of the business day. 

Perry Marshall once mentioned a question his company uses – and I love it: “What system, if fixed or implemented, would have prevented this problem in the first place?” Important for leaders: Don’t ask this question after stating your answer to the question. If you do, you’ll likely miss out on some good ideas that you probably didn’t have. Let someone else get this win – one of them is likely to have the same idea. Listening to the discussion will be far more valuable than showing how smart you are.

What a post-mortem isn’t: A process for assigning blame. Blame has zero ROI, at best. Improvement has a massive ROI, particularly when it prevents future disasters, even minor ones. We can’t always see the future well enough to avoid disaster, but we can convert them into a positive by learning from them. Make disaster avoidance part of your creation, operations, deployment process.