We spend a lot of time talking about things you can do to make sure that your business is around next year, or a few years from now. It’s a continuous effort. Still, things change and will keep changing, of course. That may seem like an almost silly comment to make, but the thing is, it’s not just aspects of your business that change. The nature of change itself is changing. Not only the nature of those changes, but the speed of the changes as well as how fast the rate of change changes. That’s what can sneak up on you.
That “how fast the rate of change changes” thing may be a bit of a hair puller. What we’re talking about is the difference between speed (how fast something is moving) and acceleration (how fast a moving object’s speed is increasing). To put it in more familiar terms, think about how a car or plane accelerate or turn. Their change in direction is measured in “Gs” – ie: G-forces. A single G is the force we all feel from the earth’s gravity. A car might be going 40 miles an hour at a moment in time, but it might be accelerating at a rate that causes the driver to experience multiple Gs.
Most people don’t get the opportunity to handle more than a G or two. Why? Outside of roller coasters, multiple Gs are usually experienced only by professional race drivers and pilots. Think about any scene that you’ve seen in a movie or TV show where a novice flier is a passenger in a fighter jet. In most of these situations, the pilot is asked to have a little “fun” with the novice flier and make some high G-force turns. The novice flier doesn’t take that very well. After training and time experiencing multiple Gs, their mind and their body will figure it out and they’ll get used to it. That works for G-forces and for the pace of change.
Change at the office
The difficulty of dealing with multiple Gs is high. It’s not for everyone. The increasing pace of change is a growing challenge for owners, managers, and teams.
Think about your industry and what’s changed in the last five years, and consider how fast that change has occurred. Now compare that pace to the pace and volume of change in the 15 year period prior to that.
More things have changed in the last five years than changed in the prior 15. If you look back another couple of decades, you’ll see the same thing. Lots of things changed from 1980 to 2000. But as you got closer to 2000, the changes accelerated. As you came closer to 2010, the speed of change continued to increase. Dealing with this as a leader is your challenge and responsibility.
The challenge of the ever-increasing pace of change is the same topic we discuss in other contexts all the time: Leadership.
The leadership in most companies and governments (large and small, at all levels) is not keeping up. If you look at how companies are being managed, many managed as they were 10 or 20 years ago. To be sure, it’s great that they’re still open after that long. It’s not a small accomplishment. I don’t mean to say that management a decade or three in the past was wrong, poor, etc. I’m simply saying that things move quicker than ever today. Preparing for, researching, and managing change was a substantial senior leadership responsibility a few decades ago. Today, this task is tougher than ever.
Your ability to keep up is critical to being here for another 10 or 20 years. You’ve also got to help your managers stay on top of whatever is changing in your market. It isn’t something you can set aside for years (or even months in some markets). Work it into your plans. You don’t necessarily have to adopt every change, but you do need to be aware of them and form a strategy to either adopt or otherwise deal with them.
While I don’t generally comment on political topics, these issues obviously confound governments as well. Drones, cybersecurity, the gig economy, and the internet in general stick out as obvious examples of areas where governments have struggled to deal with change. There are others – not all related to internet topics. Ask plenty of questions of your candidates.
We’ve been mulling change, prioritization, and getting important tasks done. It’s time to get serious before the holidays distract you. When they’re over, having a ready-to-start game plan will help you get a solid start on the new year. Question is, what should be on your game plan?
We’ve all probably heard the story about putting the big rocks in the jar before adding pebbles, sand, & water.
The story resonates because we remember a time when we left the big rocks till later & then disappointed someone by missing a deadline, or being unable to fulfill a commitment.
These disappointments, failures or what have you often happen at least in part because we didn’t deal with the big rocks first. Old news for Covey followers, but worth a reminder when making a game plan.
A game plan of three things
I suggest starting with three big tasks. Looking at the list of tasks you want to accomplish in the next year, which three should have the most impactful and positive strategic result to your company over the long term?
Think about it. Discuss it with your team. Decide.
Consider the possible causes of failure. Some call this a “pre-mortem”. Make sure your game plan includes steps to defuse these issues or prevent them from becoming a problem. Think about the essential accomplishments needed to complete these tasks. Make sure everyone knows what these points are & that someone has direct responsibility to monitor them.
Painting the building may not be one of your three things, but it could be. I can recall on more than one occasion seeing a restaurant whose building had clearly been ignored for many years – and wondering if they handle food safety with the same level of care.
Up next – figure out how long these tasks will take. You need to know if your game plan is reasonable. This is not the place for fantasy.
People are terrible at estimating how long a task will take. Eventually, some figure out a system for accurately estimating how long work will take because they got burned, fired, etc). This is particularly true in the technology business, but we aren’t alone.
Why is that?
We’re too optimistic about the pace we can maintain. We rarely bother to consider that we may run into an issue that we’ve not dealt with before – and the research, work (plus rework) & testing to resolve it takes time. These episodes don’t typically happen just once in a big project – which we also don’t consider.
We often discount the possibility of interruptions for urgent tasks that, while not of high importance, still must take precedence for a few hours or day. Naturally, we forget how many times this has happened based on our history, industry, team, etc.
Some folks estimate something, then “double it and add four”. Maybe that builds enough buffer into the estimate, but it’s still a wild guess with little more than gut feel to back it up. “Double/triple it” is a pretty good indication that you put insufficient thought into your estimate.
In some environments, you’ll find people will give an “instant” estimate to stop the “How long?” questioning. “You need to do this, how long will it take?” doesn’t usually have a legitimate answer when the task was unknown to you five minutes earlier. Saying “two weeks” without further introspection is simply avoiding persecution… temporarily.
It takes thought to produce a reasonably accurate estimate. This isn’t about making estimates correct to three decimal places. It’s about being reasonably close.
If you promise completion on January 15, you need to have confidence in that date from day one. If you know from the start that you’ll never make the date, don’t know if you can make it, or can only make it if everything goes perfectly – you’re asking for trouble.
Big tasks should be broken down into pieces before you can estimate them. Starting from task completion & working backward helps us remember steps we might otherwise forget.
Estimate your list of steps. Break down steps estimated over four hours & estimate the new steps. Four hours seems extreme, but it’s a timeframe we can wrap our heads around. In your line of work, maybe it’s four days. You know where your estimation accuracy really shines.
Make a game plan. Work your plan. Get big things accomplished.
As we approach the new year, you’re probably thinking of things you simply must get done for the coming year to be a big success. It’s a good bet that your “must do next year” list is long. There’s a good chance you’ll never complete it, at least not next year. Look at that list for what it is: Far more than you can get done in a year. That’s OK.
When we sit down and think about all the things we could do for our business, our team, and our customers – there will always be more things than time to do them. While we know this, it discourages us because we didn’t get it all done. To paraphrase Drucker, doing it all isn’t the important thing, doing the right things is.
Reflect & Prioritize
Last week, I mentioned your mile-long ToDo list and segued into managing the pace of change for your team to prepare for today’s discussion. Thinking about the year that’s about to end, how many major things did you get done?
Despite all that work, I’m sure you have improvements to make, new efforts to build and roll out (whatever that means for you), and other work to do. You aren’t alone. We all have a laundry list of important things to grow and improve our businesses.
When I look back on my year, I can think of two fairly major things and a longer list of less-substantial efforts. Probably forgotten is a laundry list of things that took less than a day or perhaps less than a week. I’m pondering this without looking at the system I use to manage such things. I’m sure I have forgotten medium sized projects that I now take for granted. The little things aren’t unimportant, but they aren’t the subject of this discussion. Still, there’s a massive pile of things I haven’t touched.
Sure and I have work to do
Rather than being disappointed about what you didn’t get done, appreciate what you did get done. It starts with looking at what you really can get done next year and how you’ll stay on the path.
I have 786 items in my project manager. Some small, some large. They won’t all be completed next year. Obviously, only a few are worked on at a time.
I prioritize the big things on my list on a weekly basis. The rest get reviewed monthly. Priorities / needs change for all of us. Something that was important six months ago might be irrelevant (or super critical) now. It’s rare that the most important things to complete in the next year will change, but it happens.
Your cycle of review / prioritize might be different, but it’s still needed. Imagine if next year you complete the three (or six) biggest items on your list. Today, that might seem crazy (“Crud, I have 780 to go”), but what impact will the six biggest items have? Only you know.
Yeah, but the Jones’
You may see other businesses getting a ton of new things done or perhaps more big changes than you could possibly do. Don’t think you don’t stack up, or that you aren’t as good as them. They may have more time, free capital, staff, or whatever. It doesn’t matter. Don’t get trapped in the comparison thing. Remember that what you see is only part of the story. You have no idea if they’ve made unsustainable decisions to accomplish what you see them doing.
Your ToDo list will live a long time. It will grow and shrink repeatedly. There will be big things and little things. They’re important in their own context, but they aren’t the biggest thing.
While getting it all done, remember to prioritize being a better you next year than you were this year. If you need a daily reminder in your calendar to do the things that make this happen, so be it.
Challenge your team to do the same and help them get there. Show them what you’re doing to improve, even if they need to do something else. Share your struggles and successes so that they know the path isn’t without challenges. Some will need some help figuring out what that means, what to do first / next, and how to get started again after tripping up. Be a leader in that respect, whether you’re the owner or not.
So, this past weekend my alma mater’s football team visited Tuscaloosa. As with most guests of the University of Alabama football team, they came away with a loss. Despite losing by 41, it could have been worse. Really it could. The score didn’t really bother me – I mean, seriously – we’re talking about an unranked team vs the top ranked team in the country. We knew it was going to be ugly.
Even when you “know” your team is going to be clobbered, there are two things you don’t want to see. In fact, I spoke with a sportscaster friend from college about it shortly before kickoff. I mentioned that I’d like to see four quarters of motivated play, ie: no appearance of quitting or giving up, and four quarters without a bunch of stupid mistakes – ie: mental errors. Fortunately, we didn’t see the team giving up late in the game, despite a 40+ point deficit. Mental errors, however, were a problem.
We don’t generally expect major college athletes to commit mental errors week-in and week-out. If they’re a problem in a game, it happens, and you expect the coaching staff to spend some of the ensuing week’s training time to address them. It speaks to a coaching problem when these things happen repeatedly, particularly in consecutive games.
On two consecutive kickoff returns, two different kickoff returners made back to back junior high school football level errors – stepping out of bounds at the two yard line pursuing a ball they’d deflected, and catching a ball heading out of bounds inside the 10 yard line (rather than simply letting it go and getting it at the 20 yard line). Neither player appeared to be aware of their location on the field. I can’t recall the last time I saw this egregious an error of that type at the major college level, much less on consecutive kickoffs. It may not have affected the outcome this time, but it would against a different opponent. Unfortunately, these were not the only two mental errors – they’re simply the easiest ones to describe.
In a football game, you expect mental errors due to nervousness, fear, a pressure-filled situation, fatigue, and/or a lack of preparation. When you are down by 24 in the early first half, about all that’s left is the lack of preparation option. To me, that speaks directly to coaching. At this point in his tenure, there’s already the drumbeat of replacement – so fixing the preparation is essential. You can’t replace your team with better players (or players who fit better into your system) in the middle of the college season, but you can significantly impact their preparation. If you don’t, a lot of other things will likely go badly.
A tie to business?
Of course, there’s a connection to business. The situation speaks directly to hiring well, on-boarding, continuing education, mentoring, management, and leadership. Those things aren’t enough to eliminate mental mistakes, but they certainly help. The preparation that we didn’t see evidence of in last weekend’s game We all make mental mistakes in business situations.
The strategies that reduce or eliminate mental mistakes during the business day are the same ones as in football. Coaching, training, mentoring, and practice are all a part of preparation. Any one of them will not do the job. For example, you can stand at the front of the room and teach people, but until they get out in the field and do what they were trained to do, it’s extremely unlikely they will perform at a high level. Even when they do, practice and mentorship is essential.
An easy example? Your sales team. Some members of your team may not enjoy practicing sales calls with other staffers, or going over recordings of sales calls with a manager or an experienced, successful salesperson – but both practices have proven useful to developing expert salespeople.
It’s on the leader
While the team members are the ones making the mistakes, the responsibility rests largely with the leader. They set the tone and performance expectations, while deciding how much preparation of their team (or their staff) is enough.
Business leaders are all under some sort of deadline. Coaches can’t put off next Saturday’s game. Both have to field the team they have each day or each week. Both are responsible for making sure their teams are well-prepared. What can you do with your team to make sure they are better prepared for their next effort?
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.
I’ve long focused on helping businesses one on one, by choice. From time to time, I’ve considered mechanisms (other than my writing) that provide help in a group setting. Ideally, this would let me help more people while not drastically increasing the time required to do so. Typically, this means holding webinars, group coaching, masterminds, ie: “one to many” events. This piece is intended to fill some of the gap between one-on-one help and one-to-many help, at least for now.
How we get help differs
When it comes to seeking help, business owners appear many forms. Some repeatedly seek help from people, books, and other resources. Others tend to accept help about specific topics, or when a resource is recommended to them by a trusted friend. Some read or listen to many sources of help / advice, but are pretty choosy about the things they implement. Some seek no help at all – and this group seems to be broken down into a group that knows they need the help but never take action, and another segment that simply figures it out on their own (or doesn’t).
Efficient learning varies from person to person. Some prefer reading, while others learn / retain more from audio, video, pictures and/or diagrams. Some people prefer brief information, others tend to consume “long reads” or extensive, highly detailed video. This time around, I decided to take a self-guided approach. I’d appreciate feedback on how effective the scorecard is for you – and why.
How the scorecard works
I’m calling this a scorecard, but the goal is not to arrive at a number and think “We got a 74, so we’re doing fine as is.” It’s more of a self-assessment & introspection tool. You’ll find statements about how things work in your business. You’ll agree with some. Others will have you thinking “That’s definitely not us.” If a seemingly-negative item on the list doesn’t pertain to you, cross it off. Look at the items you circled / checked as “yep, this is us” as a milestone on the way to a stronger company. Some may need recurring attention.
Our marketing is completely automated across all media, digital or otherwise.
Our marketing is strictly digital. We don’t make sales calls, send US Mail, visit prospects, have prospects visit us, and we don’t go to trade shows.
Our marketing is strictly organic. We don’t advertise, other than having a website.
We test new ads against our ad that performs the best.
We market our work consistently.
We spent ad money effectively.
We have data that tells us what works and what doesn’t, marketing-wise.
Our marketing is executed based on a plan or marketing calendar.
We collect information about people who show an interest in our products / services.
On a regular basis, we reach out to people who have shown an interest in us. We send offers as well as useful information that will help them make a purchase decision.
In marketing dollars, we know how much it costs to get a highly-qualified lead.
In marketing dollars, we know our lead cost on each type of media.
For each of the media we use for marketing (radio, tv, newspaper, direct mail, various internet options), we keep track of lead quality, lead volume, and ad investment.
We decrease our marketing efforts / spend when the market is tight.
We use our lead cost to drive decisions about ad purchases – including internet ad options.
We increase our marketing efforts / spend when the market is tight.
We don’t really advertise with any consistency. You might say it’s driven by which ad salespeople call on us.
In our market, expertly-done marketing has ceased to become an edge. Everyone in our market is a good marketer.
We decrease our marketing efforts / spend in good times.
Most companies in our market are spray-and-pray marketers.
Some companies in our market are haphazard or random marketers, but there are some that we’d consider experts. They spend ad money effectively.
We increase our marketing efforts / spend in good times.
We’re one of the haphazard / random marketers.
We’re one of the more effective marketers in our market.
It feels like things “fall apart” a little when critical people leave, or are out of the office.
When the owner or manager are gone for the day, things seem more productive.
When a team member is gone, it’s easy to deal with their workload because we’ve been cross trained.
When someone is out of the office, it can be a little tough, but we have written process / procedures documentation to help us get the work done.
We rarely / never have to contact someone who’s out of the office to ask them how to do something, or to get online and help us deal with this or that.
When our front desk takes order / job status calls, they have to call back into the shop to get someone to tell them what’s up with an order / job.
We sometimes run out of the supplies / raw materials we need to do our work.
It’s common for us to contact someone who’s out of the office because we need help dealing with something they do.
Customers can tell when a critical employee is on sick, off that day, or vacation.
When a customer contacts us to find out the status of a job / order, any employee can easily and quickly find the info and pass it to the customer.
Customers can’t tell when a critical employee is out of the office.
We never run out of the supplies / raw materials we need to do our work.
We use a system to track and manage our tasks / work.
Our products / services are one-off. We don’t make something once and sell it multiple times.
Once we make tooling, we can make and sell the same item repeatedly.
We sell services on a subscription basis.
The business doesn’t generate income when the owner isn’t working.
We serve a vertical (narrow) market.
We sell products and service them, so ongoing reputation is critical to get returning customers.
If we’re not on the job and billing hours, we’re not generating revenue.
We serve a horizontal (wide) market.
Our market has already been disrupted / is difficult to disrupt.
Once created, our services have a marginal COGS so we can make something and sell it repeatedly.
Our customers pay us each month. We deliver / replenish consumable products / services.
Our market could easily be disrupted.
We provide customers with a service infrastructure.
We’re always understaffed.
We have trouble keeping people, but they don’t tell us why they leave.
We have trouble keeping people. They tell us why they leave, but we can’t or won’t do anything about the things they mention.
Customers can’t tell when an employee is brand new.
Our people rarely do things together outside of work.
It takes a long time for us to hire someone because we’re careful to find people who fit our existing team.
Customers can tell when an employee is brand new.
We have trouble keeping people. We’re not sure why.
Few of our first line managers are familiar enough with the line employees’ work to take over for them in a pinch.
It takes a long time for us to hire someone because candidates are hard to find.
We’re overstaffed, but our workloads vary wildly so we don’t want to shrink the size of our staff.
Our team is a family – they frequently do fun / family / activities together outside of work.
Our first line managers could easily handle the work our line employees do, if they needed to.
We tend to promote from our existing staff.
We rarely promote from our existing staff.
Our team tends to be swamped one week, and might be sitting around with nothing do the next week.
Most of our team members are easily replaceable.
We have employees who have been here for many years.
Our sales team says they never have enough leads.
The sales team feels our leads are properly qualified when they get them.
Customers and prospects comment that our sales team was useful in helping them make a purchase decision.
Salespeople often comment that they’re getting leads who aren’t suitable for our products / services.
Our pipeline is difficult to confidently predict more than a couple of weeks out.
We have quotas, but we aren’t involved in deciding what they should be.
We close an acceptable-to-us percentage of sales when we have a highly-qualified lead.
I feel confident when I give a solid lead to one of our salespeople.
We have sales quotas – and we’re involved in determining those numbers.
We’re constantly under pressure to make quota – and we know it’s because the company’s cash flow is precariously low.
We get very few complaints about our sales team.
Finance is always bugging us to give them pipeline information, but we can’t consistently tell them anticipated revenue more than a week or two in advance.
Our sales team has an experienced leader.
It’s not unusual to get comments that our sales team is pushy.
Finance really appreciates that we can give them dependable sales pipeline info 30-60 days in advance, so they can depend on revenue in advance of receiving it.
Sometimes people send in feedback saying our sales team is more interested in closing a sale than they are about helping customers decide on a purchase.
We have more leads than our sales team can handle, but not all of them are well-qualified.
Our sales quotas feel like impossible expectations rather than achievable goals based on lead flow.
Our sales team is lead by the salesperson who usually sells the most.
We have more highly-qualified leads than our sales team can handle.
We believe that our product / service makes a significant improvement in the lives of our customers and as such, it is our obligation to offer it to as many qualified prospective customers as possible.
Our sales team easily handles all the leads we give them. They keep asking for more.
Most days/weeks/months, our sales team can handle the leads assigned to them.
Management / Leadership
You can ask any of our employees what motivates us as a company, or “What’s our why”. They all know.
Our people are an investment in our business.
We have to constantly watch our people to keep them working.
Our managers are all family members who learned to manage here – and it’s worked great for years.
Our people feel like a cost / expense.
Sometimes new employees have to wait to get a phone, desk, computer, tools, or a space in the shop. Those things aren’t always / usually available on their first day.
Employees know what our company long and short term goals are.
Have you ever driven something to the post office because then you’d be absolutely sure it was put in the right box and actually mailed? Seemed rational at the time, right? The biggest turning point in a business owner’s life is when they trust someone enough to let them do something the business owner used to do. Yes, bigger than deciding to start the business itself. It’s one of the most difficult achievements for owners because it’s driven by fear, an emotion as primitive as there is. This fear convinces us that no one else can do the work as well as we can, even when the task is unimportant but necessary.
We have a bias toward the illusion and value of control at least in part because we did everything when there was no one else to do it. We remember the good old days when we built it alone in our basement, kitchen table, garage, etc. We did it all, thumped our chests, and drank from the skulls of our competitors. Our fond memories tell us we were in control of everything. The reality was more likely daily firefighting in an environment where we were alone and nothing was truly in our control.
Control isn’t the secret sauce
We think control is an important and essential element to building and growing a company. We think this because it’s all we know. When we’re the only one doing the work – control of everything is the default behavior model. Over time, “control of everything” stakes its claim as one of the essential ingredients of our success comes to us simply because we were the only employee. That doesn’t mean it’s the ideal.
Delegating work is one of the hardest and most valuable skills a business owner can develop. We usually won’t admit to ourselves that being bad at delegating (or not wanting to delegate) is a product of our desire to preserve our illusion of control.
We convince ourselves to stay small with thoughts like these:
“I built this thing myself when I discovered others weren’t doing this, or weren’t doing it well.” (until I delegate to the right person with the right details, assuming this was ever true, and of course the task is so critical that I MUST be the only one to do it. Except it usually isn’t that critical, it’s simply work that must be done.)
“No one knows what we went through.” (and?)
“No one works like an owner.” (which is understandable – they aren’t owners).
“It’s faster to do it myself than to teach you how to do it.” (Except for the second through nth times, assuming you taught it properly)
“Others don’t care like I do.” (even though they might – worst case, they care enough or in their own way. Again, they aren’t owners.)
“So and so’s work isn’t perfect.” (Neither is yours)
“I can always do it better than anyone else.” (Are you sure? Is 10% better worth not getting to that truly critical work that is of a nature that you really are the only one who can do it?)
“No one but me has the twenty seven years of experience that’s necessary to do this work well.” (It isn’t usually necessary, we just think it is. If we use that experience to guide our training & delegation, someone else *can* do it as well.)
Control has limits
How many items can you carry at one time? At some point, you’ll either stop adding items, or you’ll start dropping things. Our minds have a similarly finite ability to control things. That “control” includes managing people, projects, relationships, much less doing the work our role demands of us.
Your leadership role requires your full attention. Would you prefer to lead your company well, or lead it poorly because your mental and physical energy is consumed by less important tasks other people can do?
Holding on too tight stifles growth. We had to hold tight when we were working alone, but it’s a serious liability when you have a team. The best NFL quarterbacks throw or hand the ball to someone else most of the time, despite most of then having great running skills. Your children won’t learn to walk if you never let them out of your arms.
An executive who works with famous bands and professional athletes regularly asks his clients how their work changed once they “went pro”. In both groups, the most prevalent answer was “having the time and mental space to focus solely on our music / on-field performance and the wants / needs of our clientele, without the distraction of little things that used to consume their time.”
The fear of letting go of the control that we think helped us succeed when it was just us – is exactly the thing that keeps us small.
Hiring my assistant Lorena is one of the best decisions I ever made. But, many entrepreneurs don’t know how to go about hiring one. (Myself included! I got lucky with Lorena!) Many entrepreneurs don’t know where to look. They don’t know what to pay. They don’t know WHO to trust. But most of all, they don’t know HOW to trust. They don’t how to let go of tasks they really need to let go of. They don’t know how to let go of control. I get that. We entrepreneurs have skin (and blood and hair and sweat) in the game. We can’t take our eye off the ball or things slide into chaos in a hiccup.
Ross Perot meant different things to different people. He was the CEO of Electronic Data Systems (EDS) – my first real job. EDS was later purchased by General Motors – there are many stories about that, especially re: Ross’ time on the GM board. Later, EDS became part of Hewlett Packard. My Ross Perot story isn’t a business anecdote, but a personal one.
Back in 1983 when I started at EDS, there was some pretty serious cultural indoctrination. EDS people do this, and don’t do that (drugs and infidelity were explicitly mentioned). EDS people dress like this, not like that, etc. I wore tasseled dress shoes anyway – making some think I was a wildling. We were designed to compete with IBM, CSC, & similar companies. Our clients were big banks, insurance companies & Fortune 500 businesses, so we had to look like them to keep them comfortable.
In the early days (at least my early days), EDS headquarters was an eight or so story business tower. The tower, access road, and parking lot were built on half of the old Forest Hills Golf Club just west of Central Expressway on Forest Lane in North Dallas. It was a big piece of land, about 200 acres, in the middle of a fast growing area of Dallas. Amazingly, nine holes of the course and a small clubhouse were retained and kept in playing shape for use by employees & their guests. It was a great employee benefit. Unfortunately, a subsequent owner transformed all but 20 acres of the property into wall-to-wall tract homes.
Lunch “with” Ross
In addition to the course, the EDS building had a nice cafeteria. The word “cafeteria” is a little understated. Long before it was fashionable for software companies to have coffee bars and delis in their headquarters – EDS had a restaurant with puffy hat wearing chefs, etc. The food was good – and the prices were subsidized, or at least reduced to close to the company’s cost. You could get a nice lunch for $2.00 in 1983.
EDS had outgrown the building years earlier, so I worked a few miles north. As such, I didn’t visit HQ for lunch too often. However, it was EDS tradition to bring visiting family members in for lunch during the holidays.
Around Christmas & other times of the year, the restaurant would serve steamship rounds of roast beef. A steamship round is a giant chunk of beef that is carved to order right at the buffet by one of the puffy hat wearing chefs. For $2.00 (!), with all the trimmings.
In 1983, my paternal grandmother came to visit for Christmas, so I took her to lunch at HQ on steamship day. When grandma & I got to the normally busy cafeteria (what employees called it), there was almost no one there as many were on vacation. I was nearing the end of my first year at EDS, so I didn’t have much vacation. As we stepped into line, a short man in a suit (all of us wore suits) turned & smiled. He stepped forward & said “Hi, I’m Ross Perot” to my grandma & shook her hand. He then looked me in the eye, shook my hand & said “I always like it when my guys bring their moms into the office for lunch.” He asked where she was from & made a moment of small talk before wishing us a nice lunch & continuing down the line.
My grandma was in her late sixties at the time & had a major league silver-blue bouffant hairdo. I was 24. No one would likely mistake her for my mother, but he err’d on the side of courtesy & charm by playing it that way. He could have ignored us, gone through the line, and scampered back up to his office with his lunch – but he didn’t. Despite having billion dollar things on his mind, he took the time to say hello to a wet behind the ears newbie and his grandma. It was one of my earliest “Business is Personal” moments – a valuable lesson.
Rest in peace, sir.
P.S. My grandma had no idea who Ross was. When we sat down to eat, she said “He was a nice man.” I told her he owned the company & was worth about five billion dollars. She (a widow for over 20 years at the time) said “Well, I guess I should take that cowboy home with me.” 🙂
Photo credit: By Allan Warren – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59243822
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.