I’m going to be a little self-serving today, but it’s based on a comment someone made to me the other day. You’ll probably be able to figure out what the comment was as you read on.
Imagine that on your way to an appointment a drop of something – coffee from someone’s cup, condensation from an air conditioner – spills onto your shirt. You’d see it and deal with it immediately if it was on the front of your shirt. If it spills onto the back, you’d probably not even notice it until some kind-hearted soul mentions it. That, dear readers, is why you need people like me.
When I grew up in the business world, I had a lot of people coaching me. My immediate boss and his boss were always ready to encourage me (and not always in the nicest of tones) and help me to grow. They let me know where the less-visible (to me) stains were. That situation is less common today in a world where there are a million corporations of one as opposed to a large company. Today’s smaller companies have much less institutional memory from which they can draw as well as less personal experience on the part of the founders and employees.
Part of what I do is to coach. I’ve run into some potential clients who tell me that they don’t need coaching, just more hands to do the work. While the latter half of that statement is assuredly true, they also need someone to point out the stains on their backs. Most consultants I know don’t have a political agenda. We’re not after your job nor are we burdened with your past or present. We are charged with helping you and your business to grow. No, you can’t do the latter without doing the former. A business is only as good as the people managing it. My peers and I are there to look at your situation and to help you reach your goals.
I’ve been doing “business” for almost 40 years (yikes!). In that time I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve seen a lot of others do the same. I’ve seen great managers and horrible managers. Part of what clients pay me for is an insurance policy of sorts. My experience ensures them that they won’t have to make the same mistakes I did. They get the benefit of the learning without the pain of the experience. What I and my peers bring is why football teams have coaches up high in the stadium – to get a broader perspective.
Most professional golfers have swing coaches. All sports teams do too. The coaches aren’t caught up in the second to second physical involvement that sport requires. They can see and protect your back. I can do that too, by seeing the parts of you and your business that you can’t or won’t see and by letting you know what’s going on in those blind spots. Call me?
I’m constantly advocating that we listen to our customers. One of the ways that we can do that is through surveys. The problem with many surveys is that we don’t ask the right questions, or we ask the right questions in the wrong way. Let me explain.
Suppose I were to ask about Obamacare. I might ask if you approve or disapprove of the law. Simple question, right? Unfortunately, wrong. To someone on the right, the “disapprove” answer might come from a disagreement with the mandate that we all have health insurance. To someone on the left, the “disapprove” response might come from feeling that the law doesn’t go far enough and a single payer system is what we need. Same answers, very different perspectives.
We often make that same mistake by not digging deeply enough. We’re told to avoid open-ended questions in survey design (they’re not computer friendly, after all), but in so doing we end up with data which is ambivalent at best and useless at worst. We also make the mistake of asking both new and returning customers the same things. Their perspectives are different and one group should have better, different insights from which we can learn.
Try to remember that consumers get hit up with surveys everywhere these days. You can’t make a customer service call without being prompted to stay on the line after you hang up to complete a survey. Many websites will pop up a user-experience survey while you’re in the midst of trying to find some important information. We need to survey but we need to be judicious. We need to be as personal as we can and to be respectful of our consumer’s time by not asking 30 questions (3 or 4 are optimal).
As with anything in business, put yourself in the customer’s position first. If what you’re asking is vague, repetitive, burdensome, or impersonal, you’ve already got your answer. It’s in your low response rates.
It’s another Foodie Friday and this week I’ve been thinking about teamwork. If you’ve dined out at any point, and who hasn’t, you’ve been the beneficiary of what should be excellent teamwork. After all, unless you’re dining in a tiny place, the person who takes your order isn’t the one who cooks your food. It’s likely that the person who cooks your food isn’t the one who developed the recipe, and it’s just as likely that there are multiple items on the plate that they were prepared by more than one person. For the end product to be great, every one of those people needs to be operating in sync and on the same page.
The one thing all great restaurants are is consistent. Every plate of the same dish should taste the same, and every time you return, the experience should be exactly the same. That doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because the chef leads the team and gives them the tools they need to perform. The recipes are written down and followed. That includes the recipe for more than the food. It’s how food is plated. It’s the vision of what the business is and how it will operate. It’s a shared sense of mission. It’s not kicking people in the butt and making them do a particular task.
There are very few work environments that are hotter or more stressed than a restaurant kitchen during peak service hours yet the best crews seem to ignore the environment and focus on the mission. Each member of the team understands their role and how it fits into the bigger whole and is committed to performing that role at a high standard.
Everything I’ve written above applies to your business too. OK, maybe not the uncomfortable, hot working conditions, but certainly the need to stop pushing people and to start leading them. If you ask multiple staff members to explain the main goals of your business and get very different answers, you have a problem. If each person can’t explain how their role fits into achieving that mission, you’re on the road to disgruntled employees and to failure. If the standards and recipes – how your business operates and how success and failure are measured – aren’t written down and clear to all, you might as well shut the doors now.
If things go badly, maybe it’s not the fault of the person who screwed up. Maybe they were told to salt the food without any amount stated. Since each palate is different, it’s unlikely two people will salt the dish the same. Maybe you asked for an analysis of some data without explaining what questions you’re trying to answer and how that question ties into the broader goals. Two analysts might answer very different questions, making the analysis terrific or useless. Communication and teamwork; pulling, not pushing. That’s how great kitchens operate. Shouldn’t your business operate that way too?
When I was a kid in middle school, I had to take ballroom dancing lessons along with many of my friends. Our moms rounded us up off the ball fields, cleaned us up, and deposited us into a room with an instructor and an equal number of members of the opposite sex. Most of what I learned from those lessons has evaporated over the years but one thing stuck: you can’t dance the foxtrot when they’re playing a cha-cha.
Oddly enough, what triggered that memory was a report issued by The New York Times that I think is instructive for any of us in business. In their words:
…to continue succeeding — to continue providing journalism that stands apart and to create an ever-more-appealing destination — we need to change. Indeed, we need to change even more rapidly than we have been changing.
The report goes through a series of potential changes to its reporting structure, staff and production processes with an eye toward increasing their subscriber base. It’s no secret that print revenues are declining and digital ad dollars are increasingly monopolized by Google and Facebook. The report, which you can read here, points toward being more visual and concise (ironically stated in a report that runs almost 9,000 words), using more diverse formats.
The Times published a similar report in 2014. That report laid out a series of goals and a timeframe that led to 2020. This report is a progress report of sorts as well as a refocusing and recommitment. It’s a fascinating bit of introspection and, more importantly, it serves as a great reminder to all of us in business.
We live in a world where the music changes often. If we’re dancing to the old tune, there is a very good chance that we’re out of step and dancing the wrong dance. This is what the Times found as it listened to the new music. They were too stodgy and too wordy. They weren’t integrating the people who produced words and the people who produced videos. They weren’t focused on their subscribers and how those subscribers want to consume content. They found, in brief, that they need to change the dance.
When was the last time you listened to the music to be sure your business is dancing in an appropriate manner? Is your team open to change or have they become oblivious to the music around them? Your customers are your dance partners. Are you in step?
If you read this screed with any regularity, you know that Friday’s topic is always food-related. The post below is the most-read foodie post of 2016. It was published last January and was originally called “Ripe.” It was a rumination on a banana and businesses that forego strategy for speed. As you’ll read, I’m not a fan of racing to the wrong destination, or to no destination at all. Amazing where one banana can take you, isn’t it? A healthy and happy New Year to you all. On to 2017!
It’s Foodie Friday and this week’s post is inspired by my breakfast. My weekday breakfast almost always involves a banana, and this morning’s banana looked yummy until I actually bit in. It was not really ripe enough. The texture was too hard for my taste and the flavors hadn’t really matured. In fact, it was kind of tasteless and quite unsatisfying. The banana would definitely have benefited from another day or two of ripening.
Despite my day not being off to a great start, a business point popped into my head. Many businesses suffer from the same phenomenon as the banana (although honestly, I am not blaming the banana for being eaten too soon). We don’t let things ripen and we move overly fast. I see this with some clients who forget the original business plan when a new opportunity presents itself, losing sight of what had got the business to this point. That sort of action – moving too fast away from what was a good idea – does nothing but engender short-term thinking.
Failing to let the business ripen also means you’ve not got enough customer feedback. It takes time to scale, and even if you enjoy explosive growth, it takes time for both the business and your customers to figure out what feedback is meaningful based on repeat engagements, etc. You would much rather hear from a customer who has purchased and used your product several times that a one-time experience.
You need to ripen to assess the right size of your staff. You need to ripen to estimate what your real operating costs are and will be. To the extent scale improves product costs, you need to ripen in order to make that assessment. Finally, you need to ripen to ascertain what your real capital needs are. Early cash flow won’t be as promising as it will become down the road (hopefully) but those needs don’t present themselves right away.
I am all for moving quickly, particularly when a company is young. Haste, however, can make waste when that speed and a failure to let things ripen means a loss of focus. Make sense?
As I’ve written before, I work with a number of startup companies. As part of my consulting practice as well as throughout my career, I also have worked with some very large organizations too. What struck me the other day as I was listening to a discussion between a founder and some other folks on the team was that the hardest part of being a startup isn’t necessarily finding the resources to keep the venture afloat until it reaches sustained profitability. It’s actually having to make a lot of decisions without a lot of certainty. Let me explain.
When I became a manager at the ripe old age of 23 many years ago, I worked under a guy who gave me some input but also let me figure things out for myself. I was working with a net in case I fell off the wire. When I reached a point where I really wasn’t certain about the “right” call, I consulted him. He, in turn, had bosses with whom he could consult if he wasn’t certain either. Over time my decision-making skills became better and my areas of expertise broadened, although there were still times when I ran for the help that was usually available to me. By the time I was managing managers I could make decisions fairly rapidly and I generally only hesitated when I thought the decision would involve corporate politics affecting more than just my department.
Most founders don’t have that luxury. Oh sure – the smart ones have a board of advisors that they consult regularly and that can help with the big decisions. But if you’ve ever managed you know that your day involves a lot of little decisions too. Should I let employee A take a vacation with a big project looming? Why is employee B struggling with an assignment? What is the best was to help employee C learn something? Even things like what font works in the newsletter or how big should a headline be in an ad often require the boss to decide. Those aren’t things that you ask your advisors and yet those decisions are the ones that take away your focus on the main business of the venture: customers, revenue, expenses, and profits.
There isn’t an easy answer here. Yes, hire people like me (or even better: hire me!) to provide the kind of on-going sounding board that one gets in a big organization until such time as your feet are on solid ground across many areas. When you do, be sure that the consultant you hire sees your world through your eyes and understands your point of view but also adds a broader perspective. I never try to make decisions for my clients but instead I try to guide them to a sound one themselves so they can understand the process, the factors involved, and all their options. If they’re heading down the wrong path I speak up. We often find a better path together and get through the hardest part as a team. You?