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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Politics and work – do they mix well? As political communication seems to approach something resembling “say nothing or go psycho“, politics can become tougher at work. I love intelligent conversations with people I don’t (and do) agree with. But finger poking, red-faced, screaming rants? I’m gone. I’d rather watch hot dogs being made.
That politics and work don’t mix well does not mean that the mix is unavoidable or unmanageable. Employees whose politics are a mix of “us and them and them” can get along & be productive as a team. That doesn’t mean the company isn’t going to have to deal with conflicts. Avoiding these problems requires some care when hiring, and that still won’t guarantee you’ll avoid problems related to political differences between employees.
The mission is rarely politics
You may prefer to hire people who are very serious about their political views, particularly if they match your views. That’s OK. No matter where your team members align themselves politically, they need to understand what really aligns them as employees. There’s a single thing to align with when they’re at work and/or when representing your business. That they’re “invested in delivering upon the mission of their employer in the service of the employer’s customers.”
Every business has a culture, whether it’s intentional or not. If you hire people who are incapable or unwilling to adopt that culture, they probably won’t be around long. How politics is handled in the work environment is a part of a company’s culture. Part of delivering upon the employer’s mission is taking care of their customers in a way that is defined by the employer. Some employers are better at defining this than others. All companies define this by example & through their culture, if not via training.
Leading by example
You’ve probably heard about people being fired because of public actions / statements. Sometimes these are political in nature, sometimes the person is simply being a jerk (or worse). I wrote a few weeks ago about an executive chosen for a job who lost it the next day. Online posts that were incongruent with the role of being a senior leader in that industry were costly.
While everyone has a right to their views, how they are communicated in public may reflect upon their employer. It isn’t always that simple. Our political views tend to define how we work, in whole or in part. They can be at the core of who we are & how we got there. Still, we must lead by example.
What leaders say
Imagine hearing the CEO of a national fast food chain publicly stating “Our food is gross. I can’t believe our employees make it, much less have the gall to serve it. What kind of people are they?” Who at that company would feel motivated by their work after hearing that? If that person was named CEO at a different company, how would the new company’s staff react?
Would you expect that CEO to have your back in a situation where a CEO should have your back? How would you like to be one of that company’s salespeople after hearing that quote? What would your response be when a prospect repeated the quote to you after you finished your highly-polished sales pitch?
How does that situation not become all about that leader?
Losing sight of the mission
Politics creates problems in the workplace when someone has not only chosen a political viewpoint, but defines themselves by it. It ceases to be about issues and candidates. It won’t be about how they should respond based on their experience / training. It could become about how someone with their views should respond to work situations.
When an employee’s actions are no longer about the business or the customer, you have a problem. At that point, you get to decide what’s more important: that employee’s views, or your business. It won’t be easy, particularly if you share their politics.
Ask yourself these questions:
“Do I want the person who did / said / wrote these things to manage the people I’ve put in place to care for my customers and the future of my business?
Do I want them interacting with my customers?
Do I want them representing me and my business in public in this manner?
Whether the answers are yes or no, make sure your people know.
A couple of months ago, I was driving to Banff to meet some friends in a rig we call the Scoutmobile. About an hour into the drive, the engine’s temperature started heading into risky territory. I was in an area where there was very little room to pull over, so I started looking for a safe, roomy place to get off the road. In management-speak, this would be a stretch goal.
While searching for a place to stop, I used common engine overheating delay tactics: turn on the heat, slow down, etc. I had a simmering suspicion that a blown head gasket was coming home to roost. This rig had close to 300K miles on it, so this wasn’t an outlandish possibility. As this suspicion moved toward reality, it was obvious that simple overheating delay tactics wouldn’t help for long. I needed to stop.
Stretch goals and context
Getting to a safe, roomy stopping place became a new and much smaller stretch goal because the context changed. Frankly, making the 400 mile drive to Banff and getting back without mechanical trouble was really the stretch goal. Given the rig’s mileage and concern about the head gasket, I had wondered for months if it would survive the trip.
Once the engine temperature started rising, my decision making context changed. Meeting friends in Banff was off the table. Finding an ideal place to pull over became the stretch goal. Getting off the road was possible, but not quickly. Leaving the road in a nice wide spot so I wouldn’t cause traffic issues became the stretch goal.
As I finally rolled into a safe spot out of traffic, the engine lost the little remaining power it had and locked up. The first time it stranded me in 17 years turned out to be our last drive together. While I made the stretch goal even in the altered context, even that seemingly tiny stretch goal was too much for the situation. That’s the lesson here – attention to changing context is critical.
Stretch goals aren’t the problem
I don’t mean to say that stretch goals are bad. They aren’t, but context is critical. When my trip’s decision making context changed, so did my goals for the day. Looking back, it’s possible that stopping immediately would have prevented the locked up motor. I didn’t want to partially block a lane on a two lane highway. That as my justification to push a little bit further – a stretch goal.
When you decide on stretch goals, be sure you aren’t going to drive your team too long at “redline”. Redline (in automotive terms) is the maximum speed at which an engine and its components are designed to operate without causing damage to the engine.
Making your monthly sales goal in three weeks is a classic time to give your team a stretch goal for the month. Adding requirements to the final days of a project that’s already behind will all but guarantee late delivery. Likewise, shrinking a timeline they’re already likely to miss is a good way to sour a hard-fought win.
Race drivers will repeatedly push a race car’s engine to or a bit beyond redline because that’s when they get the most from their engine. Thing is, they won’t do it for long. Pretty soon, they’ll shift or brake. They know redline is there for a reason and pushing the engine beyond normal operating limits for too long will end badly.
Running at redline
Prolonged running at redline has similar effects on people. Someone can work a couple of 80 to 100 hour weeks under near-term deadline conditions and some will do so willingly if they believe in the goal.
Where this goes bad is when it becomes “normal” to work like this. Do this and some (probably all) aspects of their lives will suffer. They’ll not have (or make) time for family, or taking care of themselves. Eating and exercise habits will suffer. They’ll have less (or no) time for friends, the dog, yard, car, hobbies, etc. Rest will suffer, so their ability to focus, concentrate and show patience will be affected. Burning bridges at home combined with a drop in work quality / output can permanently create morale / attitude problems.
Sometimes limits really are limits. Exceed them too often for too long and you’ll damage engines, people, relationships and before long, your company.
When times get tight in our businesses, we look for places to cut expenses (as well as increase revenue). We might cut marketing costs based on the size of the expense (not wise). You might review the performance of your lead sources & reduce / eliminate some that aren’t performing well. In a business that manufactures things, we’d look at automation and raw material costs. We also look at ways to reduce waste. We’re also likely to look at hiring and staff-related expenses.
Getting rid of folks generally creates production and process challenges, but there are “easy” cuts sometimes. So-called easy cuts might include “extra” people, poor performers, and folks who aren’t adapting well to your culture, work, etc. Thing is, these are last minute cost-savings tactics with their own costs – and I’m not referring to unemployment insurance or severance. Our hiring process and ongoing curation of our team rarely gets a look – and that’s where the long term savings are hiding.
Careful hiring can avoid disruption
In general, business owners are a little impatient. Like the girl in Willy Wonka, we want it NOW. However, that sort of impatience is not a good investment at hiring time.
When we don’t take the time to learn enough about a candidate, we risk disrupting our business far and above the level of disruption that a need or departure has created. When we hire badly, we take even more time to fill the position. We create a mess trying to fit the person in, salvage the hire (or place them in another role), and perhaps get rid of the person and end up looking again. Making a hiring mistake can turn the wrong candidate’s life upside down. Getting hired is as much of a pain as hiring someone – and just as difficult.
A bad hire doesn’t imply a bad person. Sometimes, you get the wrong person for the role. Maybe there’s a skill / experience mismatch, or a culture fit that doesn’t work. Sometimes, there’s a behavioral / motivational issue. As such, it makes sense to work a little harder and a little longer to find the right person the first time.
Hiring better almost always takes longer and it’s certainly more work. I hear and read a lot of “can’t find anyone qualified” comments, but that’s often more about your company, the role, and your pay / benefits scale than it is a lack of people. Hiring isn’t something to rush. It’s one of the biggest investments you’ll make. Hiring before you’ve found the right candidate can be incredibly costly in time, money, morale, and other areas.
A rough example
A scenario like this played out in Missoula last week. A prominent public facing position became open due to a medical retirement. A replacement was named rather quickly, at least it seemed so. Soon after, the replacement’s comments on social media surfaced. Among other things, they were not particularly complimentary of the company’s industry. Other comments by the candidate received a lot of reaction. In some cases, they wouldn’t matter. It appeared the candidate’s social posts hadn’t been reviewed by the employer, who rescinded the offer the next day.
Reviewing a candidate’s social media posts may seem like a trivial thing to do. It might even seem like a silly waste of time. However, it’s become essential part of the hiring process and it’ll likely take less than an hour. 99% of the time, you’ll find nothing disqualifying. You’re almost certain to learn more about what’s important in the candidate’s life. The remaining one percent of the time – it’s likely to save you from making a mistake. This is particularly true for hires that might stick for 20-30 years.
I know… when you find a highly qualified candidate, you don’t want to look for disqualifying info. Do it anyway. It’s important to understand as much as possible about a candidate BEFORE you hire them, for your sake and theirs.
That position has been temporarily filled by the person who planned to retire. My guess is that this generous act will allow the business a bit more deliberate hiring process this time around.
This isn’t about what happened in Missoula. It’s about what might happen to your business. The time you might waste. The disruption to your business and to the life of the person you hire by mistake. Hire carefully and intentionally.
The news seems to document a consistent parade of unethical behavior by executives. You see it both in “startups” (Uber, Theranos) and in more traditional large corporations. Even if you ignore Enron, Tyco, and the well-known cases, they’re in the news almost every week. Have you ever wondered how so many people with a severe lack of ethics managed to get into leadership / ownership positions? The reasons add up.
You hired them.
My answer? “You hired them.”
OK, maybe it wasn’t you specifically. Think back through your career. Any of us who have hired someone can probably think back to a time when something happened related to a hiring, a firing, or a delivery of discipline – and we let something go.
Without thinking hard about it, your natural response is probably “Nope, not me.” I suspect that would be my answer as well, so I decided I should think back a bit and provide some examples.
Was there ever a time when a resume didn’t seem 100% up and up? Maybe there was “a little something” that made you wonder. Did you investigate? If not, did you hire them anyway?
Was there ever a time when you didn’t speak with every reference on a resume? How many hires have you made where you didn’t talk to ANY of a candidate’s references?
Have you ever assumed a degree listed on a resume was legitimate and decided not to take the time to confirm it?
You didn’t fire them.
Have you decided not to fire someone who deserved it – and not because of paperwork or contract requirements?
Have you ever said “No” when someone asked if they could work from home, even for a day? If you said no, was it because you didn’t believe they would actually work? Or perhaps because you didn’t believe they’d give you a full day’s work? If you can’t trust them to do that, how can you trust them at all?
Have you kept someone who deserved to be fired, only to see them repeat the behavior that you didn’t fire them for?
While you might’ve thought that you were doing someone a favor, you may have encouraged them to continue that behavior. It’s also possible that you helped them see the light & turn things around. Only they know for sure.
Hiring and not firing adds up
OK, so we can probably all remember maybe one of these situations. Perhaps you can recall seeing it happen as someone more senior overrode a decision you made. Or you watched them make the decision as a leader elsewhere in the company, but you had no input into it. You might even have been a line employee who watched it happen with a new employee. Maybe you were told to “get a warm body ASAP” and pressured to make a hire before you were ready.
No matter how it happened, it reinforces the bad and/or unethical behavior.
Thinking back, these little things may not seem important. They put something on their expense report that really shouldn’t have been there. It’s OK, they were on the road, etc, etc.
Reinforced bad behavior creates more instances of bad behavior.
Eventually, the size and scope of this behavior will increase as success is repeated. Why? When someone gets away with these things, they gain confidence to do it again. The more it happens, the more it seems normal. The more confidence they get, the bigger the reach.
But that isn’t the worst of it. What could be worse? Like many things, ethics has a network effect.
The network effect works for good & bad. Team members with poor ethics (at any level) likely have more tolerance of bad behavior from others. Once they get into a leadership role, are they going to come down on that sort of behavior?
Everyday ethics sends signals
Recently I suggested that when people tell you who they are (in words or via behavior), believe them. Everyday behavior sends signals to indicate how they’ll behave when you leave the room. IE: how they’ll act when you’re at lunch, out of town, or sick.
Which of your people do you feel you can trust while you’re gone? Discuss it with them. They need to know how you feel. It sends signals about your leadership.
PS: The rest of your team already knows about these folks.
Last week in “Reflecting on Leadership“, I said “The more I thought about it, the more disturbing this reflection became. I thought back to any number of employers and client businesses and the training they offered to new team members. Training was never about preparing a new (albeit, sometimes experienced) employee to succeed / survive IN THE ACTUAL SITUATION / ROLE.“
It’s important to unwrap this & explain why I find this disturbing.
I said “disturbing” because the short and long term impact of this lack of role specific training hit me. It impacts the company’s success, the employee’s short term success in the role, and the employee’s career in the long term.
Think about the perspective of the employee who steps up. Employees might be stepping outside of their comfort zone in order to take a shot at this role. While access to opportunity is important, employees like to help their company & manager by filling an important role. Consider the potential chaos created by the departure of someone with “big shoes to fill”. Everyone knows the impact of that departure – yet someone is likely to volunteer to take on that role. Employees who step up to fill a role created by increased workload feel similarly.
From the owner’s perspective, each of those situations imply that success in the role is important to your company. An existing staffer who steps up deserves to be well-prepared for the role.
What happens if someone who “steps up” to take on a new role is “thrown to the wolves”? The natural response is that other employees will be less likely to step up when the opportunities present themselves. Eventually, the perceived lack of opportunity will provoke them to leave your company.
They reflect what we teach.
The lack of role-specific training teaches the employee what “normal” is. As their career continues, they’re likely to manage others – and will likely do so as they have been managed. There will be exceptions, of course, but our own experience tends to be our teacher. Consider the long-time employee who becomes one of your senior leaders. Would you want them based role-specific training decisions based on the training they received?
Anything you do is everything you do. It all ties together.
Employees who join other companies in your industry send a message. Not because they left you, but by reflection. Their skill set, experience and how they work reflects upon your company. Your peers and your customers will eventually figure out that your team is “making it up as they go along”, if that’s how things work. Poorly trained people are easy to notice.
What about seasoned staffers?
You might expect them to step in and “hit the ground running” since you selected them because of their background & experience (among other things). Even so, experience & background aren’t everything. New team members joining from “the outside” should take part in discussions about your company’s culture, resources, role expectations, etc before a hiring decision is made. Culture is a critical piece for experienced people. Behaviors expected / tolerated elsewhere can cause failure of a new team member as if they never had a chance.
Avoiding the blank sheet
While the specifics of role specific training will vary, some topics likely occur across industries.
Examples to get you started:
Specific duties of this role on a daily / weekly / quarterly / annual basis.
Process-specific training required to succeed.
Where / how do the duties in this role fit into its department?
How does this role’s work fit into and contribute to the company’s big picture / mission?
Information / data received regularly.
Which events to be concerned about.
What events to expect.
Events you should be concerned about – if they don’t happen.
Data the company creates and/or collects that’s related to this role.
Expected deliverables & their due dates.
Sources of industry info that should be monitored.
Industry influencers to interact with / follow.
Available ongoing training / certifications needed.
Company’s policy on getting initial & advanced training. Time out of office, travel, tuition, reimbursement, etc.
Time normally required in this role before going to advanced role specific training.
Company experts (in this role’s context) and the person whose job requirements include mentoring the person in this role.
Internal company groups related to this role / department. When / where they meet. What to gain from them. Insight they need.
For many businesses, the best month or two of the year ended late last week. For others, it starts next week. Your “big month or so” might be some other time. The real question is, will you sell, or will you only take orders?
This year, many businesses and their teams chose to take orders. You probably experienced this personally at least once this year. Anyone can take orders. Maybe they’ll need a form, a point of sale system or a yellow pad combined with some guidance from the customer, but ANYONE can take orders.
Does “anyone” work for you? Or does your sales team have industry expertise? My guess is that the latter is true.
The last time I was in what should have been a consultative sale, rather than speaking to someone with industry expertise, I was given to an administrative assistant who appeared to have little domain knowledge. The admin was following a computer form to sell me what I appeared to need. I’m OK with that when there’s no choice or when the sale is doesn’t involve financial risk, safety, or similarly serious matters.
Even when those things are involved, it’s OK to start the process with an admin and a computer screen when there’s follow up by someone with industry expertise. Unfortunately, there was no follow up by anyone in their office to be sure that I got not only what I wanted – but also what I needed.
Customers buy stuff.
When financial risk or safety is involved, someone has to be there to consider what carnage might be introduced into your clients’ lives. Don’t make your clients do your job. I would be far less concerned about the admin-driven sales process if follow up occurred. In this case, the downside risk is awful, annoying, inconvenient and time-consuming. They know this.
Despite this, I wasn’t asked about a four dollar a month option that would manage much of that risk. This is why follow up occurs. While it will almost certainly increase your upside, it will also show your clientele that you’re taking care of them.
You can show the team what taking orders feels like, then show them what selling feels like. Ever talked with a bad (or perhaps poorly trained) life insurance salesperson? Ever talked with a good one? The difference is amazing.
If there’s any sort of consultative selling process in your line of work, the difference probably feels amazing to your customers. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in.
For example, go to WallyWorld to consider buying a power tool. Got questions? What will happen? Now go to Ace or the Depot on a Saturday mid-morning. I suspect you’ll find the experience differs.
Customers often buy solely based on price. Clients tend to buy based on the expertise of those caring for them. Sure, they might run to WallyWorld for a commodity, but when domain knowledge is essential – they’ll come to the expert.
Clients are taken care of.
Review their work
If you do have an admin or inexperienced salesperson take care of the initial sale, review what they sold to your client.
Not simply now and then. Review EVERY sale.
If you have to contact the client to fix or complete the sale, be sure to include the person who made the initial sale. Call or email. Ask questions. Make sure they got what they wanted. Ask questions to make sure they got what they needed. Do you need to suggest any changes based on your experience, or what you know about me? Do you have questions that aren’t part of the form the admin uses? Perhaps that form is issues by your national provider and you need to apply some local knowledge to properly configure a purchase.
If the admin or inexperienced person did everything right – tell the client and tell whoever made the sale. Both need confidence in your team members with less experience.
If it didn’t go well, it identifies an opportunity to review your process and improve the sales materials your team uses, even if that means yours are over and above what the national dealer provides for you (or perhaps forces on you).
This coming year, decide to sell. Anyone can take orders. Remember: Customers buy stuff. Clients are taken care of. There’s a big difference.
Almost all work teams use tools. Sometimes these tools change over time, sometimes they don’t. Some tools have a long history and rarely change from their original form – other than perhaps the materials they’re made of. The pocket knife is a good example. While it was once wood, bone or stone, over centuries it evolved to steel and other metals. Today, you can buy a pocket knife in almost any form you want. If you have the right tools, you could make the knife yourself.
Comfortable tools, comfortable shoes
We can get so comfortable with a favorite tool that we don’t consider the use of alternatives. In some cases, we might be blind to alternatives or improvements. Either we don’t realize that everyone who generally does what we do has moved on to new, better, safer, or more productive tools, or we aren’t paying much attention to changes in our industry.
Tools become like comfortable shoes or a car that we’ve owned for a long time. They fit just right. They don’t give us blisters (real or mental). We become so adept at using them to perform our work that they become a part of us. We can use them to perform a task and find ourselves done with the task and realize that we performed the task without really thinking about it. At that point, work becomes much like muscle memory. We can do it inattentively or without focused thought.
While this sort of comfort and familiarity is a good thing, we need to be careful not to let ourselves be lulled into complacency.
Are your tools state of the art, or close?
When we don’t get outside of our comfort zone on tools – and this could be tools of any kind – things can happen to our work and our output that we never saw coming. If you still use a claw hammer for every nail you drive, the houses you build will be as sturdy as those built by someone with a modern tool like the pneumatic nail gun. The problem you might run into is your level of productivity would be the close to what it was 40 years ago. That might seem ok until your ability to complete a structure in a particular time frame is compared to builders who use nail guns.
The nail gun is an example and these issues aren’t limited to any single trade, skill, or career. Even if you love your industry’s equivalent of the claw hammer, it’s worth taking time to review the alternatives that have sprouted in the last year. Some industries experience tool changes quite frequently. In particular, software changes in many industries, but there are many other changes that occur frequently that you may not want to (or need to) switch to. Even so, stay aware of them.
Flavor of the month
Tools in some industries change so frequently that keeping up with them can put a serious dent in productivity. Thrashing around because you’re constantly changing to the “flavor of the month” tool-wise adds hidden burdens to your productivity and costs to the bottom line. This is one of those areas where you see software changes creating problems. This isn’t as much about the software industry as it is about the industry where the tools are used. The software business has plenty of challenges with flavor of the month technologies – but they aren’t alone.
If you feel like you are repeatedly tempted by the “bright, shiny object” tool-wise, stop to reflect a bit on what’s creating the desire to switch to another tool. Is it desire or need? Marketing tools frequently fall into this category, while proven, productive activities such as the manual labor of following up after a sales call are neglected.
Tool changes are often positioned as eliminating the need for a skilled craftsman (regardless of gender), or eliminating the need for a tool user with substantial training and experience. Safety is often a prime component in the introduction of newer tools. None of these things replace training, skill, and experience with a tool. Even with 3-D printing and similar technologies, there’s skill, experience and training at some point in the process.
Build a process with your team that evaluates new tools and gets people to stretch their comfort zone beyond the tools they’re familiar with. This tempers “random” tool changes & allows both experienced & novice staff to offer input & learn the business process for evaluating tools.
Recently, an employee of a tool company publicly commented (in a snarky way) about another vendor in their market. The target of his remarks isn’t a competitor. They create tools which complement what’s created by tools sold by the company that the snarky guy works for. Do employees who publicly snark about a vendor (or a client) think about the outcome of a vendor conflict that escalates badly? Perhaps. Let’s take a look at what’s at stake. The situation speaks to the leadership you provide to your people, even at a small company, and how it affects the sustainability of your company, and possibly that of your market.
What does sustainable company really mean?
We talk about sustainable companies and how culture, hiring, marketing, product, service, and leadership all contribute to create a company that lasts a very long time. Let’s tear this down into the pieces you and I can directly relate to. We’ll do it in the context of the two companies I’m referring to, but keep in mind that these things affect every company – including yours.
Many millions of dollars (and other currencies) are made each year from work created by the tools sold by the company that snarky guy works for. The company is rather small and one might think they’re insignificant in the big picture when compared to the big vendors who own that market internationally. You might think the same thing about your business. Don’t. When you look at regularly performed analyses of tool usage worldwide, the snarky guy’s company rarely appears on the list. In the rare occasions when it does appear on such lists, it’s in the second 50 or second hundred. In this market (perhaps like yours), it may seem insignificant. As such, why should we care what one employee said in public, right?
The leadership of that “insignificant” company should care. As should you when your people speak.
The math of an “insignificant” company
While there may “only” be 5000 to 10000 people worldwide who own tools made by snarky guy’s company, a portion of them are generating a good income – good enough to support their families for decades in some cases. This is not “random math”. I know a fair number of these folks. Many have employees. A few have 50 or more employees in the U.S. and/or scattered around the globe, and/or their products are a critical tools for companies with many employees.
When you take that community as a whole, we’re conservatively talking about between 100,000 and 200,000 people affected by the income generated via products created by these tools. Included in that figure are employees, customers, family members of the vendors, client companies, and other groups directly affected by that income. Expand that to the users of the products created by these people by adding those who make a living from the products. Add those making a living where these products are a critical tool in their work day. Now add their employees and families. Add the vendors all of these companies and families buy from. While this tool isn’t a global leader (and that’s OK), it still creates a significant amount of impact. For those who keep the lights on and their kids fed based on income rooted in those tools or businesses run by products created with those tools, it’s quite personal.
I suspect the 100,000 to 200,000 figure is quite low, even though it’s the estimated cumulative impact of one small tool maker who rarely (if ever) shows up on the radar of their industry. Small, much like the impact from any number of small businesses in your town. Including yours, perhaps.
So how does leadership affect sustainability?
The impact of even the smallest of companies must be taken seriously. Your company may seem insignificant compared to large multi-nationals, but the sustainability and leadership of your company has real impact. It affects homes, cars, kids, retirements, groceries, utility bills, and college plans for more families than you may have considered. Your team’s behavior follows the leadership example you set, which reflects upon your community, your company and you. Counsel your people about speaking about your company, your clients, your competitors, and those you collaborate with even in the smallest of ways. The smallest of things start a forest fire. When they do, everyone gets burned. Photo by Payton Chung