A recent graduation had both sets of grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle flying from the Midwest into two different airports, converging on Spokane. On the morning of my mother’s flight through Dallas, a thunderstorm with a tornado-like attitude stretched from Austin to Missouri. My mother’s flight to Dallas took a circuitous path around New Orleans, past Houston, into Austin. After an hour in Austin, her flight left for Dallas and landed there too late to allow her to catch her connecting flight to Missoula. A re-route through Seattle changed her arrival in Missoula from 11am to midnight, making a 22 hour travel day. Her baggage was a different story.
We all have baggage
After all that, Mom’s bag didn’t make it to Missoula. Given that her rerouted flight terminated on a different airline & was booked to Kalispell by the original airline (later corrected by Alaska in Seattle), it wasn’t surprising.
I called Alaska baggage in Seattle the next morning. The data said the bag was in Missoula the night before, but that didn’t seem right. Even so, it required a visit to the airport – and that’s where the magic started.
Shawna (an Alaska gate agent) in Missoula took my details & filed a claim. She said the bag was en-route to Kalispell. Shawna sent instructions to return the bag to Seattle on the next flight, then forward it to Spokane since we were heading there to meet the rest of the family. Then Shawna took the first of several unexpected steps. She gave me her direct number in Missoula, telling me she’d be off in a few hours but someone else (whose name I forget) would help me if I called after she left for the day. She also wrote them a note to make sure they checked on the bag. Then she gave me the direct number for her peer in Spokane’s Alaska baggage office and the direct number for the Seattle office, just in case.
My expectations were mixed. I’d had re-routed luggage before. Eventually, it finds me. The process is frustrating until the bag arrives. This was different. About noon, my phone rang. Trevor (Alaska baggage) said the bag was en-route to Spokane. He asked if I wanted to pick it up or have it delivered. He took my delivery address and said “Call me if it doesn’t arrive by seven” then he texted me an additional number as a fall back.
About six pm, I received a call from Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. The woman said the bag was out for delivery and would be delivered soon. About 15 minutes later, it arrived.
My bag delivery expectations were met. Despite having flown a good bit, I’ve never lost a bag. Today, a bag’s barcode is scanned so often that it would take odd circumstances to make one disappear without a trace.
My expectations of the people were a different story. I had never experienced such attention to detail and effort to make sure I always had a local phone number and a name to ask for when tracking down a bag. I was never on hold where “my call was important yet they were experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes” repeated incessantly. Instead, my calls were answered in a ring or two & always handled well.
The uncle arrived at midnight on the evening of the arrival of my mom’s bag. He came in on a different airline (not Alaska) but his bag didn’t. He spent much of the next day on hold with his airline’s central baggage office. They didn’t seem to know where his bag was or when it’d arrive. After dinner, I suggested he call Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. What could it hurt? He was skeptical, but called them anyway and, unlike my experience, had to leave a message.
Five minutes later, he received a return call from Alaska baggage. Even though his airline was unsure where his bag was, the woman said she had his bag. He could come pick it up or she would have it delivered. He’d have clean clothes for graduation in the morning.
I don’t know what Alaska does differently, but their people don’t seem to know they work for an airline. Does your team act like they work in your industry, or do they provide service to a higher standard?
PS: the Monday after all this happened, Mom received a discount code for a future flight “for her trouble”.
Many of the company owners I know are “one person shows”. IE: The owner does it all. Sales, marketing, product development, customer service, finance, toilet cleaning, you name it. Having been there, I know “The Struggle”. Too many things to do, and they never stop coming. How do I automate and free up some time? How do I free up time to do more important work?
It feels to them as if every moment they spend trying to improve the business takes away from the work they need to get done on products, or from sales calls, or from the ever-present demands of customer service. Thing is, those things are infinite in nature.
An infinite agenda
Sales calls will always be on your agenda. Customer support will always demand someone’s time. There will always been a todo list or an agenda of self-replicating tasks like service and sales calls. It’s like swimming in all of the ocean or walking to the horizon… it’s not possible to do them all and never have more. Meanwhile, those things can easily consume a day, a week, or frankly, a lifetime.
Meanwhile, if you let this infinite agenda rule your business life, there are tasks you’ll never get done. That manual monthly task that must be done every third of the month that takes an afternoon still comes back. You have to do it. It pre-empts even sales calls and customer service. There’s probably a way to delegate, outsource, or maybe even automate it. Trouble is, it feels like you’re too busy to take an hour to do that – even though you might never have to do that work again.
The result is the overwhelm and feeling of being trapped. You feel there’s no room for improvement because there’s no time to improve such things. What you’d find is that each small effort to improve these things is what creates room for the next small effort.
Time works a lot like profit
Time works a lot like profit, meaning that if you don’t set some aside at first, you may never have any.
Remember years ago when someone told you to pay yourself first. Even though it’s a simple idea, it may have seemed transformational at the time. Carve off an amount of your take home each month into a separate account before you pay your bills. Even if you start out at $10 a month, it’s only $10, you can figure out how to survive financially without it. Over time, it’ll grow, particularly if you manage to eventually carve out a little more and a little more before paying the bills. You get better at it.
It works just as well for businesses. Carve the profit out first – before you pay anyone else, including yourself. Even if the profit from your operations is tiny and is actually invented by this intentional act in the early days, take it out. You’ll find that your business will find a way to survive without that tiny amount one way or another. As your business improves, you’ll figure out a way to make that number larger.
Oddly enough, the time required to improve your business (working ON it, rather than FOR / IN it) can be carved out exactly the same way. You’ve probably noticed that if you start your day by digging into email, sometimes you’ll “wake up” from digging through and handling email only to find it’s suddenly early afternoon. Email has magically consumed a chunk of your day. You learned through such sessions never to start your day with email, but instead to “pay your todo list first” by doing the most important work first.
Pay the future first, time-wise
You already know this.
That’s why most days you probably try to get the most important item on today’s agenda done first, then you can deal with the rest. No matter how chaotic the rest of the day is, at least you got the single most important thing completed.
Even one day a month, make the most important task that day be an effort to improve the future. Like paying yourself first (or carving off even the tiniest bit of profit first), carve off an hour at the top of your day and do something that will pay dividends for months.
Even if only for an hour this month, pay your future productivity first.
As our body ages & changes, it sends signals. We gain or lose weight. Our appetite changes. Fatigue comes quicker, and sometimes during activities that didn’t cause it in the past. Doing things we’ve always done without difficulty now creates pain, either during or after the activity. Businesses also display symptoms, though I prefer to see them a signals of something that’s changing.
Over the last few months, a business that I’ve frequented for more than a year has started showing signs that it’s having difficulties. Does your business show signs like that? Maybe some examples will help you see what your customers might perceive as signals.
I spend about 12 hours a week at this place. I suspect this is far more than most customers are in your business, so I may notice more than your customers do. Maybe. We all notice different things at different rates. My wife tells me my sense of smell isn’t very well developed, for example.
Over the last few months, I’ve seen signs of financial stress when visiting this business. Many of them have been maintenance related. For example, the only two water fountains in the building have broken twice in the first year they were open. The first time, it took almost a month to repair them. The second time, it took a day. They’re adjacent to each other and fail at the same time, interestingly. One of the men’s toilets has been disconnected from the wall of the bathroom for months. It still works, but there’s an almost inch wide gap between the back of the tank-less fixture and the wall.
Paper towels & toilet paper are present some days & scarce on others. The staff often has to be told that TP is empty. Paper towels are replaced by cloth towels. These towels are used to wipe down sweaty workout machines, so cloth towels that remain out in the facility for reuse aren’t a good solution. These things send messages to customers. Some notice, some don’t. Some care, some don’t. Do you ask your customers if they see any maintenance issues that you might have missed? Familiarity makes some of these things harder to see.
If expectations haven’t been set for attention to details and follow up on repairs, these signals could be the result. However, this might also be a case of weak or absentee management. Sometimes, there’s one staffer. Other times, five or six, at the same time of day on different weekdays. While it feels like inattention, it could be the result of using staffing-level management tools used by major retailers. They tell you how many people to have in the store based on same day, prior year foot traffic/sales, etc.
Currently, one of the 16 televisions on the walls has been displaying the same still image for the last two weeks. It’s not unusual to find trash littering the floor in public areas. This business is a locally owned franchise. I’d never seen a manager around, so sometime last year I asked the national company about the broken water fountains that had been down for several weeks. They suggested I ask the local manager. Amazing that I hadn’t thought of that, right? The water fountains were broken again this week.
I hadn’t discussed the issue with a manager only because I wasn’t sure who it was – despite visiting this facility almost daily for a year. There’s no indication of who the manager is (by name, sign, uniform, badge, etc) or how to contact them. All the folks working the facility and the front counter seem to share the same responsibilities. The obvious solution was to finally get around to asking who the manager is and when they were on site. Does your company make it easy to identify on-site management?
Is your business sending signals?
The business used in the example isn’t the point. In your case, the signals could be that you never have parts in stock, or that your team is untrained (or under trained).
A couple of times a day, you might ask your customers if they notice anything that needs attention. That’s vague enough that it won’t taint their response and it gives them plenty of leeway to mention a top of mind situation. Take the responses as a gift – as most feedback of this nature is exactly that.
After a long week of travel, I returned home today to learn that a fair number of people didn’t get to see their favorite (or “new favorite”) team play for a Final Four spot on Sunday. Apparently there were some communication issues that prevented some local stations from receiving the feed of the game. A sports reporter for one of these stations blamed their internet provider for the downtime. They indicated that their control system connects through a remote link (whose doesn’t?) and the internet connection between them and the system was down. Thus, it was the internet company’s fault, right?
Symptoms of failure
“Without that connection, we don’t get anything to air“, the reporter noted.
That seems like it might be a problem. What could we do so that this type of failure never happens again?
As described, a single connection to a remote location is the dependency for a major network television affiliate’s network content. The ability to deliver content created by the network – something they likely depend on for about 20 of their 24 of airtime each day – depends on a single internet connection.
Most of the time, the ability to access the parent network’s television content is not critical path functionality to a community – even though it’s likely considered critical functionality by the station. If the connection goes down, maybe they have recordings or cached programming they can play. However, there are times when live content could be critical in a life or death situation. This station is located in a part of the Midwest that is subject to tornadoes. Perhaps they have their own technology (radar, etc), content, and experts for those critical situations.
Bottom line, the station has a critical system with a single point of failure.
This isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of the real problem: management.
A management problem
While TV coverage of a ballgame isn’t a problem on the scale of the situation with the 737 MAX, the station’s viewers are likely unhappy about the outage. If your sports bar pays that TV station (and their network) a big check so that you can show their content, you might also be upset. In the latter case, you also have a management problem if you only have one source of sports content in an environment that depends on sports. You get the idea.
I’m guessing most TV stations have generators to keep things running during power outages. How many have redundant internet connections from different suppliers? Even if you can’t afford a full-time redundant connection, you can schedule access via a second provider during periods when losing your feed could create massive problems. Not foreseeing possible connection issues at the worst possible time is more a failure of imagination than anything.
The management problem is allowing any critical system to have a single point of failure.
You’re the cure
A single point of failure may not as bad as losing electricity or internet connectivity. It could be people-related as noted during last week’s brain drain discussion. To summarize, if you don’t have checklists, documented systems, and well-defined processes, you could have a single point of failure when you lose an employee. If their work is critical path, your business risks temporarily losing the ability to take care of its commitments.
This is particularly critical for a working owner. If they do work that no one else at the company can do, they’re a possible single point of failure. At risk: The company and the personal economies of every employee family. What if the owner has a stroke or gets hit by someone who ran a red light? The company’s future is probably altered forever.
The work of avoiding such failures must be done in advance. It takes vision and imagination.
The situation is most dire when this owner happens to run the town’s biggest employer. The economy of the entire town could be crippled overnight. A lot of employee families could be placed in a terribly challenging situation – the kind of thing that cascades across a town’s economy.
Despite this risk, I don’t believe a town (or a state) should “guarantee” a company’s success. It’s the duty, obligation, & responsibility of the town & its people to avoid getting into a single point of failure situation. Once a town’s economy is destroyed, neither blame nor a legislature can fix it or the financial situations of her residents.
I had a conversation about “brain drain” with an old friend this week. “Brain drain” is the loss of business-specific and/or industry-specific knowledge suffered due to employee attrition. When experienced people leave a company, they take their brains with them – including all their knowledge and experience. Losing specialized knowledge can be painful even when someone isn’t moving to a competitor or starting a competitive firm.
My friend’s customers tend to be large, with thousands of employees. He has a tool for collecting data about the workflow, business structures, and processes in these organizations. The data becomes a logical representation of the business – a model. That model (database) describes the company’s jobs, work, roles, “work products”, etc. It’ll eventually help you identify connections between those components of the company. Collecting the data is a significant effort, but this is understandable. Large, complex organizations are extremely difficult to fix, much less keep running on their own. Having a reference for what the company does, how it does those things, and how it communicates is essential. A model or reference allows you to create consistency. It identifies the systems and tools will help the company improve their performance. It serves as a lens that brings the company’s inner machinery into focus. The effort and payoff both grow as the organization size increases. This effort (and it’s price) also mean it’s something a small business would almost never do.
Small business brain drain – a foregone conclusion?
Brain drain can create nightmares for small businesses as well, but you don’t need massive processes and expensive tools to tackle it. How do you protect yourself from this? Use the same type of process, without the expense.
Identify the roles your team has. In a small business, people tend to wear multiple hats. Each one of those is a role. If you’re small, you might have someone who fills five roles during their work week. What skills and training will a future new hire need to successfully perform this role? What processes and tools will be involved? Is experience and/or training required? Someday you might be big enough to make that role require a full time person. For the processes they must perform in that role, is there a checklist? Is there a form?
Lots of knowledge is buried in undocumented business processes & related timelines. When finally documented, you’ll find innate knowledge that’s been seared into the team from unknown people or situations. There will be “we do it this way but I don’t recall why”. You’ll learn about long-held (possibly valid) assumptions passed down among team members that no one’s documented. Information hides inside experienced people who for years have done their job, refined processes, and trained a new co-workers. Many lessons go undocumented, despite being learned over many years of work. They came from the impact of many small refinements over time, thanks to lessons they learned along the way. This “what and how but not why” is unintentionally hidden from management, carefully sequestered in unwritten job descriptions.
We hide this knowledge in forms and their workflow. It hides in unwritten, but known expectations, and in undocumented metrics that someone here probably understands. Sometimes there’s data available, sometimes there isn’t. Some of this data is never used because we didn’t have the time, tools, or desire to learn from it. Much of this data is documentation of what we and our team members do every day.
Once you identify each role, follow the paper trail in your business. It’ll tell a story. Follow the data. Ask why of your data, your forms, your processes, and your people. Document the answers, the reasons, the surprises, and the gaps. This information has real value, so keep it up to date.
What the hurt looks like
If an experienced team member retires, quits, spends a week in the hospital, or takes a leave to care for a family member this month, how will you…
Get their work done.
Recover the knowledge of what they did and knew not to do.
Meet the deadlines they own.
Maintain their contacts/relationships inside/outside the company.
Deal with vendors & internal/external customers who are suddenly not being attended to / hassled appropriately / held accountable / cared for / paid / billed, etc.
Someone will leave sooner than you expect or hope. Get ready.
How much of what your company does absolutely MUST be done by you? How many hours a week do you spend doing those things? What if you could do 10-20 more hours of that per month. After a few months, what if you refined that new ability three or four times? Think hard about that. At that point, you would be able to spend 10-20 hours more per week on the things you and only you must do. How would that change your business? For that matter, how would it change your life? I learned this magic from a mentor who is pretty demanding about getting people to work on the things they’re best at – and nothing else. While not everyone can do that much delegating right off the bat, this process still leaves plenty of opportunity to gain valuable time to do the work no one else can do.
Choose someone else
Perfecting the art of delegation (or at least refining it) is something that takes time. Identifying everything you do that can be done by others… doesn’t. If that seems tough, just identify the few things you do that no one, absolutely no one, can do for you. Now it’s easy: delegate everything else.
Yep, that simple. Start with the easy stuff.
Say you want to send flowers to your mom for her birthday. You can call the florist in the town where she lives and work it out with them. Maybe you prefer to call 1-800 whatever, or a local florist and ask them to make it happen. Or you can do none of that – and delegate the task to someone with as much or little detail as you like. Your mom doesn’t care that you didn’t make the phone call. She’s happy you remembered her and thought enough to send flowers.
You might be thinking “that was only 10 minutes on the phone”. Or 15. Or 20. Plus following up, if needed. Whatever. The time for this one task isn’t all that relevant. Look at the big picture and add them up. The point isn’t how much this one task takes. It’s about how many tasks like this are consuming your time each month.
Turn it up, by turning it around
Once you start getting into the groove of delegating, it’ll get easier over time. Thing is, there’s a way to completely rethink the process and realign how you look at new projects. When a new task or project pops up, think first about who else (ie: not you) can do the work – unless the work is on that (probably) short list of things that only you can do. Who else can manage it? Plan it? Track it? Lots of people, right? Let someone else do those things. They’re important, but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t do them. You focus on the portion of the project that’s work for you – and nothing else.
Multiplying the impact
Want to take this a bit further and multiply the impact? Start teaching it to your managers and skilled team members who get distracted / side-tracked by work that someone else could do.
You might be wondering “If everyone is delegating this work, won’t that require more people?” Yes, it might.
Thing is, if your managers and highly-skilled team members are doing enough of this work that it requires one or more people to complete it, that’s a problem. It means that your managers aren’t spending all of their time managing (hard to imagine, right?) Instead, they’re doing work that someone else can do. It also means your highly-skilled team members are spending an inordinate amount of time on things that other team members can do.
For managers, the problem is that when people, projects, relationships, and product delivery isn’t managed well, the entire company is affected. In the case of highly-skilled team members, we’re talking about high value, high cost, high return on investment work. Any time your highly-skilled team members are spending time on other tasks, they’re getting more expensive by the minute. Worse yet, they become more expensive when they spend time on random tasks that have nothing to do with their skill. Removing any non-core task from these folks increases their value and allows them to contribute more to the company’s bottom line. In some cases, this newly found time opens up sales opportunities because these folks can produce more of the thing you hired them to do.
In Silicon Valley, “exiting” means a company you started / invested in went public or was bought by another company. It’s a time of celebration, reward, & anticipation of the next big project. When you are selling your company, it’s often different. For some, it’s an escape. For others, it’s the achievement of a long-anticipated goal. Are you prepared for it?
Is your company ready to sell?
The process of getting a company ready to sell is really about getting it running smoothly. It’s easy to think of it from the “E-Myth” perspective & focus on “systematizing” your business, but there’s more to it. Put yourself in the shoes of a buyer during due diligence.
They’re looking for proof. Signals that provide assurance.
They want to see data that indicates how your company performs. If you have good, verifiable data, you don’t need to make big claims. Let the data talk. For example: You can probably predict gross revenue over the next 90 days with a fair amount of accuracy simply by gut feel, but can you show data that supports your prediction? How you do this will vary, but many use some form of leads-per-month and conversion rate.
Sidebar: One conversion rate calculation is the number of leads who buy during a period divided by the number of leads you gained during that same period. If you get 1000 leads a month & sell to 520 of them that month, your conversion rate for that month is 52%. Sales cycle length & other factors can complicate rate calculations. Keep it simple.
Selling your company requires leading indicators
Measurable business performance can be difficult to extract solely from financials, which produces trailing indicators. Income history over time is good to have, but it’s a trailing indicator. A trailing indicator is one that documents how the company did last week, last month, last quarter, last year, etc. What about the future?
Buyers want to see leading indicators. Data that accurately predicts future performance.
A leading indicator uses verifiable data to reasonably predict how the company will perform next week, next quarter, etc. Restaurant reservations are a leading indicator: You can predict on average that 78 people will show up for dinner if you have 100 dinner reservations for next week.
Lead counts (inbound phone calls, website opt-ins, etc) function both as a trailing & leading indicator. Imagine you got 100 new leads a day on average over the last two years. Let’s say your close rate on sales hasn’t changed during that period. If your average sales cycle is 60 days long, you should be able to predict income quite accurately for the next 60 days. Why? Because the lead count is steady and so is your close (conversion) rate. While this ignores changes in prices & costs, it reasonably predicts future gross income.
Why are you selling your company?
When someone approaches you about selling your company, it’s often done without provocation. You haven’t listed the business for sale. You haven’t indicated that you’re ready to retire. “I’m not ready“, you might think.
They see opportunity. Sometimes they see synergy with their existing business. Maybe they want to buy more customers. Their reasons are theirs. What are yours?
When you ask owners in this situation what they really want, they’re often unsure. There’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t always know what the next step beyond business owner is because you haven’t thought hard about it. You’ve been focused on running the company, growing it, & taking care of customers. It’s OK if you haven’t put serious thought into what a sale really means – even if you always knew you’d sell someday.
“A big check” is too simplistic an answer for some, because the business is a big piece of who they are. Some want a role in the company after the sale. Many don’t. Some care what happens to the company, the customers & their team. Some don’t.
Owners often have a number in mind that they would take. The first number I hear is rarely based on hard numbers, desired ROI / payback period, etc. Remember that a buyer is purchasing assets (most likely) as well as an income, whether they’re an individual or a company.
When it comes to selling your company, your “why” is as important as theirs. Think about it and get your business ready.
Several times over the last month or so, I’ve suggested refocusing on important work. I’ve suggested paying attention to long-procrastinated tasks. There’s high value in moving on to bigger things and relieving your mind of the self-persecution of procrastination. All of this tends to demand that you do four things: Prioritize. Delegate. Outsource. Focus. We’ve focused on prioritize and focus in recent weeks. Today, let’s talk about delegation.
“I can do it faster than I can delegate it”
The pervasive thought, *particularly for a founder/owner*, is that you can complete a task faster than you can describe it well enough for someone else to do it. That might be true the first time. It’s probably true the first few times. After that, you’ll know one of three things: Your instructions are ready, or they aren’t. You chose the right person. You chose the wrong person. Those are easy to fix.
Delegated tasks are usually needed more than once. They tend to happen repeatedly. The first few times, you’ll want to check their work. Who wouldn’t? They’ll want you to do so as well. You’ll probably need to refine the checklist / instructions you created. Soon, they (the person you delegated to) will be refining it. After the first few times, you’ll want to take a quick glance to make sure things are done right. But the 11th, 20th and 42nd time? You’re out of the loop. Intentionally.
That first few times, you aren’t going to gain any time through delegation. Just as you expected. Even if things go very well, you have to circle back. After those first few times, you’ll gain time every time this work needs to be done. Not only are you no longer having to prioritize and find the time to do the work, in many cases you won’t even have to think about it. Unless your company is very small and has no other managers, let someone else follow up and monitor quality / completion time, etc.
If you don’t have anyone else to do that oversight, give the person you delegated to a process to confirm the work’s completion to you without interrupting you. While you can use whatever job / process / project management system you use for this, don’t over complicate it. This can be as simple as an inbox, an email or a text. Prefer old school? Put an old Amazon box on a table outside your office so they can drop things into it without interrupting you. Hang a clipboard on a nail and let them check off the things you’ve delegated to them.
The keys to delegation
The stickiest thing about the delegation process is how you document the work. Yes, the very thing you don’t want to take time to do. That’s the thing you must do well. Several things are obviously critical. The complexity of the task could require covering things you normally take for granted. Things “built in” to you. This may make it even more tempting to avoid delegating the task, but don’t give in. If it can be delegated, do it.
There are several questions to consider. What raw materials and tools are required? Where are they? Are instructions required? Other team members? Are interim approvals or reviews necessary? When should the work be started? When must the work be done? What milestones exist between the start of work and completion? Do we need lead time before delivery for oversight, review, rework? If so, how much? Does the job require outside resources? (contractors, services, materials not already in-house)
Completion and delivery: What specifically indicates that the work is complete? What specifically defines completed delivery? Paperwork in a specific folder? Files in a specific Dropbox folder? A pallet in a certain rack? A delivery to a customer? Is a customer sign off required?
These things are always on an owner’s mind, but might not be on the delegated person’s mind until you share them. Even though the person doing the work isn’t an owner, they’re still important. They include: Why is this work being done? How does it tie into the big picture? What are the stakes of failure? Is a customer depending on this work? Is this work critical to keeping a customer?
The first few times, this process won’t be enjoyable. As you refine your delegation process – you’ll end up with a form, or an email template, or something to make it easier. Give it time to work – because you need it to work.
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.