Category Archives: Management

Demonstrating value in a cost-center: the one-two punch

I head up a division of the company that is in many ways (though not all) internally focused – building best practices, improving coordination, being more effective with clients, and so on. The challenge with these types of departments is that they are cost centers for the most part (i.e., not direct revenue generators, like sales), and so we need to think creatively about demonstrating value to the rest of the organization.

There are many ways to do this, but I think it boils down to two broad strategies.

One, think about metrics that tie cost center activity to company goals. The first group to be on the chopping block when money is tight often appears to be cost centers, rather than revisiting efficiencies in revenue centers. Internal IT is the poster child of this phenomenon. But what if internal IT had, up to that point, been regularly issuing reports on the number of hacks and data breaches averted, the number of smooth technical onboardings occurred, the number of growing applications developed and maintained? Then the chopping block turns into questions of, “What percent of this value are you willing to sacrifice?” and “What level of efficiency in systems are you willing to compromise?” and “What additional risk are willing to accept?” rather than simply, “What can we outsource to save money (because on paper they do the same thing)?”

Here, think in terms of a “balanced scorecard” – an excellent concept described by UC Berkeley’s Dr. Toshi Shibano in his Strategic Financial Literacy course under the university’s executive education series. Financials are really just a single dimension, which everyone will naturally gravitate toward. Can you produce data on other dimensions, such as customer satisfaction and retention, cycle time or turnaround time, productivity, and innovation, in order to demonstrate value?

  • Pro tip: distribute balanced scorecard reports before your department is at risk of being on the chopping block!

Two, leverage relationships. Don’t have them? Go  build them. This can be especially hard for individuals working in a company’s internally-focused cost center teams, whose initiatives require skills in infrastructure-building, accounting, or other administrative and operational responsibilities, rather than explicitly relationship-building. But you don’t have to be a schmoozer to build relationships. (Really!)

The easiest way to do this is to identify 1-2 relevant people to go talk to for 30 seconds after you’ve sent out an email, whether it’s a reminder, a notification or FYI, a request, or a call to action. Asking individuals in person if they had any questions about what you sent out, or asking their opinion on the content, is a great way to make sure other parties in the organization are aware of your work and your role.

  • Pro tip: Get buy in from people before the email goes out – even better!

This is especially important in our company where I’m trying to get people to comply with established best practices when everyone would rather stick with what they’ve always done. Walking around the office and spending a minute verbally engaging with people to brainstorm how it’s relevant to them does more to get compliance than any formal email or “roll out” of company policy alone.

Writing well in business: 4 tips for succeeding, borrowed from academia

When I was in the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley, I had a professor who was appalled that science students bragged about getting through college without having to write a single paper. He attempted to correct that by making a paper required as part of his class.

I work with people coming out of finance or life sciences at the university level, and some days, I wish I could just surround myself with humanities majors – you know, people who know when to use who versus whom. Sometimes, people are not very practiced at writing well in the business environment, and it’s to the industry’s detriment. So much weight is placed on doing the actual research that the communication of research findings can be lacking. (This shortcoming is best illustrated when I see work plans that reserve 90% of time to doing the research, and only 10% of time to summarizing it all!)

I’ve been following Daniel Wallace’s collection of essays on teaching composition at the university level. Over the course of 15 years in consulting and managing junior and mid-level consultants, many of the challenges Daniel discusses and helps to solve actually resonate with my own experiences outside the university environment.

A few things I have learned, or discovered for myself, after reading his essays:

  1. We are never really done learning how to write well.
    • There are infinite audiences, objectives, and environments in which we write.
    • Sometimes, we need to “unlearn” one way of writing to learn another. Over time, an assessment of what type of writing is required becomes a part of the natural process, but at first, people can have a hard time letting go of the one way they’ve been successful writing thus far.
  2. There is always an opportunity – and in fact, a goal – to gain a skill through an exercise.
    • The point of an exercise should not only be the deliverable to the client, but to ask ourselves: are individuals on the team and the team as a whole going to do it better and more efficiently next time?
  3. Sometimes, you just have to be explicit about how it should be done.
    • There is a lot to be said for giving people space to figure it out on their own… unless they start to spin their wheels. A roadmap, especially the first time, goes a long way.
    • For example, one habit that I’ve tried to break new consultants of is the tendency to leave the punch line until the very end. Your writing process does not have to mirror your research process. This isn’t some dramatic conclusion you’re building up to! You’ve got C-suite level decision-makers who want to know the bottom line. Go ahead and put all the need-to-know information up front in an executive summary. It doesn’t minimize your research diligence and in fact, a fantastic executive summary does more to demonstrate your research chops than anything else in the deliverable.
  4. Every sentence is a question.
    • I’ve pulled this directly from Daniel Wallace’s sixth essay in his series. This is a fantastic strategy for making sure your staff are leaving no stone unturned in your analysis or presentation of findings. It’s a great way to review and provide feedback on drafts, as well.
    • Especially in niche professional services, industry jargon can be used as a crutch. The key to ensuring that your message is getting across to clients, and is organized well, is to ask a question after every statement or concept, to fully explain rationale and bring your client along your thought process. Don’t leave it to them to connect the dots on their own.

It is wonderful to be able to learn from other academic and professional avenues! So much of our success depends upon recognizing where someone is coming from, and adjusting our teaching or communication to optimize behavioral change.

 

A trying time: whether and how to help your employees

There is a comic that I saw online of two people walking down the street, and one person was telling the other, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”

These headlines about police aggression and resulting retaliation are incredibly distressing, especially because social media provides a platform for people to wage keyboard wars over extreme positions. What can leadership do for employees during such tragic and sorrowful times? Should we do anything? Must we keep separate work and anything outside of work? Do we ignore the controversies swirling right outside our door and expect the employees to do the same?

You may not be able to push off deadlines or change company operations in any way, but here are some ideas to inject some sensitivity into your work environment.

  1. Acknowledge that it’s a stressful time.
    • Even the simplest gathering to acknowledge that it’s a tough and scary time can relieve some tension. Acting as if nothing is happening sometimes prevents people from releasing the burden of their own thoughts.
  2. Allow more breaks and time-outs for people to clear their heads and get back in the game.
    • Distracted employees will only introduce inefficiency and poor work quality. Let people clear their minds more often if they need to, and something as simple as taking walks outside might help employees dive back into their work with more focus.
  3. Do not make judgments on how employees decide to use their earned PTO.
    • Most companies have personal time off (PTO) as a benefit. Sometimes we need a mental health day to collect ourselves. Let your employees use their PTO benefit however they choose, with no judgments. It doesn’t have to be reserved for sickness or vacation. They earned it – they can determine when and how to use it.

We don’t have to compromise our business goals when dealing with external controversies, but a little sensitivity with our employees can go a long way.

“Just checking in on your sanity level.”

My coworker dropped by my office. He thought I was supposed to be on vacation.

I clarified with him that today is actually my last day in the office for 2 weeks, and I leave on vacation tomorrow. He said he wasn’t expecting me in, and he dropped by to check “on my sanity level.”

Translation: is work so burdensome that you must sacrifice some of your planned vacation?

What a fantastic coworker.

It prompted me to reflect that I felt like I started to be better at my job when I began to care more about the people than the firm. My first attempts at personnel management and professional development of others was, sad to say, a bungled attempt at times. It was because I tried to follow the party line, whatever my interpretation of that was.

As soon as I started to trust my instincts about what people needed, and listened to what people wanted, I felt I was able to find those ways in which both the individual and the firm could find common ground and be healthy. (Or, in the few occurrences in which that common ground could not be found, we were able to recognize it early, call a spade a spade, and move on with no hard feelings.)

My coworker reminded me that we can all look out for each other, even if we have goals for the firm that need to be met.

 

Originations at a professional services firm

Consulting, law, and other professional services firms often use the concept of originations at the leadership/partner level, originations being somewhat crudely defined as who gets credit for bringing in new business.

Because it has ties to compensation, originations have been the source of turf wars and decaying professional relationships among colleagues in an environment that so desperately needs open collaboration and information-sharing for firms to be truly successful and client-focused.

So how are professional services firms supposed to reconcile these two seemingly disparate concepts? Is it possible to maximize your personal originations and still optimize collaboration and client service?

Firms can start to reconcile by creating a clear set of ground rules for open communication about originations to occur on a client-by-client or project-by-project basis. Here are some:

  1. Originations don’t necessarily equate to revenue to your department. Let’s not compare apples and oranges. You can bring in business for any part of the firm and have that be recognized as your origination and comp. That is a separate issue from the revenue you manage in your department, which may be fed by you or other partners.
  2. Originations don’t have to be defined by who brings the client through the door. In fact, feeding clients to the firm doesn’t necessarily produce revenue. After all, those potentials might need to be vetted further, and there is something to be said for collaboration to land the client, rather than cold hand-offs that can leave the client feeling disjointed. If it’s a collaborative effort to get the client to sign on the dotted line, you can split the origination.
  3. At our firm, departments tend to service clients at different stages of product development and maturity. This creates a nice evolution of service to our clients from one department to another over time. The department head for the downstream service has incentive to help land a client for an upstream department, in order to promote client retention and realize ongoing revenue for the firm (and get a piece of the pie later!).

I actually prefer that departments heads work out their originations among themselves. I would never say that people shouldn’t stick to their guns to protect their originations, but evolving the conversation to a larger context of what the client needs over time, and how a split can be negotiated may help reinforce the concept that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and the firm may be healthier for it.

Lesson learned: agreeing that there is a problem to be solved

At my weekly one on one meeting with my boss, the President and CEO of the firm I’ve worked at for the last 15 years, I ran a problem by him that I was wavering on how to address well.

In pitching to a potential client, I found two of our department heads speaking very expertly on issues in their particular domains, but talking past each other where those domains intersected. There was insufficient coordination between them in how their domains overlapped for this client.

After explaining the problem to the boss, brainstorming the various ways I could help them solve this problem both for this client and future clients, and asking for his opinion, he asked me a very simple question in response.

If you take a possible solution to them, do you think they’ll have any idea what you’re talking about?

He must have taken my slightly stunned silence for a negative. He proceeded to remind me that:

1. Individuals need to recognize that there’s a problem.

2. Individuals need to agree on what the problem is.

3. Individuals need to agree to collaboratively work on a solution.

Only then we can determine what to do, whether I have a role, and what that role  might be.

Afterwards, I tested the water by asking one of my colleagues involved how she thought the call went. She thought it was fantastic.

Huh.

It occurred to me that perhaps what I believe (department heads shouldn’t talk past each other and should reconcile their respective services for potential clients) might not necessarily be what others believe (perhaps part of a department head’s job is to advocate for their services to a client and they are not responsible for other department’s service lines).

The aha! moment I had with the boss will definitely lead me down a different path in terms of a next step with these folks.

Still learning!

Onboarding new employees: what I’ve learned and have yet to figure out

Feedback from new employees indicate that the top three areas in which employers most miss the mark in onboarding are the following :

  1. Clear guidelines on responsibilities
  2. Effective training
  3. Friendliness and helpfulness from fellow employees

I’ve been onboarding employees for 10+ years, and here are some tips to ensure that the investment you’ve made in recruiting and hiring someone doesn’t go to waste:

  1. Have a clear job description for them. Use it as an anchor for check-ins and reviews, and be open to refinement.
    • Set up categories of duties, so that it’s not an unending list of activities that can be hard to manage and refer back to.
    • Include relative percentages of time for those categories, so that employees know what they should be focused on.
    • Have a couple of items in each category that fit under “things that are not required but you may be asked to do.” Here, you can list professional development opportunities that don’t have to be performance-based.
    • Things change. That’s OK. But go back to the job description once a year and refine it, ideally to the agreement of both parties.
  2. Assess whether training was effective, and retrain if necessary.
    • I use simple multiple choice survey monkeys for the basics.
    • Use case studies for training someone on how to apply the material. Some case studies have served me for years; they don’t have to be from yesterday, as long as the application is still relevant.
  3. Set up side meetings or social encounters to help facilitate connections with other employees.
    • Have an open welcome the employee’s first morning, in which everyone is invited for a meet and greet. At my company, the operations folks do a great job of organizing a round of everyone sharing one “fun fact” about themselves. It’s a nice 15 minute welcome.
    • Sure, I like to take the new employee out to lunch the first day! Even better, invite one or two other employees to join you, so the new employee has a chance to develop early connections outside of the managed/manager one.

What I haven’t figured out is just as important a thought exercise for me. Here are some areas that I continue to either stumble through, or implement new strategies on a trial and error basis with mixed results:

  1. Assisting with full assimilation into the company. How can I best help the new employee infuse their unique perspectives into how we have “always” done things?
  2. Diagnosing trouble spots and making course corrections earlier. How do I obtain truly honest feedback from new hires and get an opportunity to make refinements in their experience when and where it counts?

I will continue to noodle on these critical and lingering issues for a long time, as I’m not sure there’s a magic answer out there, but I am open to ideas.