Tag Archives: Small business

It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t get distracted

I’m helping an entry-level Associate learn prioritization. I remember what it was like, getting asked to perform tasks by multiple superiors. Everyone wants their stuff to be priority, so much so that they employ a little trick with the line staff (some consciously, some not): they don’t even give a timeline within which something they need done should be completed. They just assume the Associate interprets the request with the directive, “Now.”

But there are multiple “nows” – multiple time horizons upon which we determine when something should be complete. And I’m sure you know, dear Reader, that many deadlines are actually artificial.

Of course I still need to prioritize. Big time. I fell a little short of my numbers this year. It was close enough that if I had really been focusing on the numbers, I think I could have nailed it. Instead, there were high-level organizational growth issues to deal with, and I worked on those happily because it is important and interesting and intellectually stimulating.

Our company has a goal to double revenue from 2013 to 2018. And you know what? We’re on pace. We’re on pace!! That’s a big deal for a small company, and I’m so proud – proud of my colleagues and all the line staff who are putting in good work every day, proud of my contributions to that pace (even if I fell a little short this year).

But let’s be clear – we’re only going to make it to Goal if we keep our eye on the ball. Whether it’s managing tasks from multiple superiors, hitting annual targets, or realizing 5-year strategic plans, we can’t get distracted.

So I told that Associate who struggled with prioritizing requests to ask for timelines for completion from the requestor, and if the Associate could accommodate it within her already established priorities, then fine. But if she couldn’t, that she should refer the requestors to me to determine whether priorities need to be shifted, they need to wait, or they need to find another solution to get it done.

I will need to continue to do the same. We love to talk about organizational development! Let’s do it within the context of existing priorities, talk about it after we review where we are on our first-tier goals, or create a new organizational development goal and rework the relative percentages of focus for all goals.

Because if we do that, we can manage well not only our business days, but our business years!

How to be able to think at work (seriously)

Our business, like most, is bottom-line driven. But our business is also SMART goal-driven, and that might not be like most others. (SMART goals = goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timed)

We spend a considerable amount of time each Fall preparing company, division, and individual employee SMART goals to improve our bottom line year over year. Then January 1 comes along, and I find people spending time working (very hard and in a very focused way) on the most random things.

What on earth happened to the SMART goals?

There are countless distractions during the day. I get it. Fires need to be put out! Emails need to be answered! We have standing meetings and calls!

But often, this is not actual work. I encourage people to block out their calendars to get actual work done. Brain work. Not busy work. I didn’t hire people to answer emails. I hired people to come up with some solutions and best practices and new protocols. I hired people to ask the right questions, and get us closer to solutions.

I hired people to think.

And there is little to no accommodation in today’s business world for people to just think.

Here’s what happens when people carve out time in their calendars to think: the actions that result are actually pretty straightforward and efficient. People don’t need an hour meeting. They need a 20 minute meeting. People don’t waste time on email going back and forth on an issue. They make an actual decision on something.

Have we forgotten how to think? How to brainstorm? How to structure our days? Has the calendar full of meetings that anyone can drop something into made us a collective Sisyphus? Yes.

So here’s how to think at work:

  1. Book it. Block out the calendar for this. And respect the time you allocated.
  2. Frame it. Ground yourself in what to think about. What is the problem or issue? What is your objective today?
  3. Start broadly. People don’t brainstorm these days! What a pity. There is value – and potentially the best answer to the question – in starting with a sky’s the limit attitude. You can narrow things down later. Don’t fear the brainstorming process! And don’t dismiss or scoff at it.
  4. Organize. Sort out what is not relevant, and put it in a parking lot. (Hey! It may be useful later for something else.) Don’t know whether an idea is relevant? See #2. With whatever is left, start grouping ideas together. Are some ideas really variations on a theme? Are some ideas steps in a singular process? Are other ideas related, but not specific to today’s objective?
  5. Land on something. Chances are, the brainstorming and organizing have resulted in a coalition of ideas that serve today’s objective. Still seeing disparate concepts? Go back and organize more. Not enough content to work with? Go all the way back to brainstorming.

And that’s how you think at work. After that, the actions come:

  1. Write it out. People usually start here. They open up a new email, or they create a new Word document and start typing. They type and type and type… and stop when they get a little stuck. Next time, don’t. Only take pen to paper (or keyboard to email) in a structured way after this exercise.
  2. Proofread. Always. Who doesn’t re-read that email before hitting Send? Change it if you need to. But only read it once. Catch your “will” that was supposed to be “won’t” but then hit Send, for goodness’ sake! The amount of time it takes to get it just right often doesn’t result in better outcomes. Move it forward.

The first 5 steps are the way people and a company can actually meet their SMART goals. The last 2 steps are not how you work; writing and sending something are only the mechanics. Actual work is often brain work, and like anything else, it requires time and space to do it.

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.

Bad reviews: how to bounce back

Ah, the interwebs. Where everyone can post his opinion, and everyone else can weigh in on that opinion.

While this is fine for Facebook between friends, enemies, or frenemies (bullies not allowed!), in business? Oof! A bad or even a lukewarm review can have a lasting negative impact, especially for a small business.

It’s easy to get defensive and go straight to, “The reviewer didn’t really see the whole picture,” or, “The reviewer is just exposing their own sour grapes.”

But why didn’t they have a bigger picture to work with? And why are their grapes sour?

Maybe it’s the emotional equivalent of validating a toddler’s feelings. (I do acknowledge that I’m prone to over-connecting business and parenting.) We’ve got to explore what the reviewer is telling us.

Ineffective management? Incorrect application of performance metrics? Even if we decide that the reviewer’s recommendations for change are not the direction we want to go in, (1) at least we are re-evaluating, and (2) we can think about how to adjust communication about a policy, even if we ultimately decide we don’t want to change the policy.

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Bertrand Russell

In another separate vein, part of my job is to conduct client reviews. I’d say about two-thirds of the reviews have some negative aspect. This is largely selection bias – when things are going very well, clients don’t often take the offer to do a review, but if there is something we could be doing better, they like that we asked and want to participate.

Sometimes, feedback can be difficult to hear. It’s important to not take things personally and go back to the project teams to evaluate the feedback for developing tangible changes to address those gaps, both for the current client as well as other clients in the future.

Go ahead and write your next chapter

Will my daughter survive? Yes. Will everything go to hell? No.

Will I worry about it anyway? Why, yes. Yes, I will.

I’ve gone from 12 daylight hours per day with my newborn to 2, maybe 3 if I’m lucky, now that I’ve returned to work. What a change! I’m afraid I’m going to miss all her firsts from here on out. (Turns out I missed a first even when I was home. I was getting a pizza and paying the delivery guy at the door when my daughter rolled over for the first time with my husband watching her for 30 freaking seconds. Sigh.)

Luckily, I’ve got a flexible job – or I’ve made it flexible. I check my email in the morning before going in, feed the baby before leaving the house, get in some good “think time” for the job during the commute, do the usual back-to-back-to-back meetings and calls (reserving time in my calendar to pump three times a day so that my daughter has milk for the next day), get home in time for her evening feeding, and wrap up work after I put her down for the night. The flexibility is in the face time at work: need to come in late or leave a little early? OK. Need to work from home to cover for my stay-at-home-dad husband who has a recurring appointment on Thursday mornings? Sure.

The bottom line is: as long as my network and staff connections continue to be nurtured, and the work gets done, I should have all the flexibility I want. So should it be for any parent at the company. I planned out this flexibility – and got buy-in from my colleagues – before the baby came.

Ours is a small company – about 25 people. And more than half of the employees are smart, ambitious 20-somethings. The rest of the employees who are parents have kids who are either grown adults now or well into school age. I know that many of the younger employees – who are newly married or in long term relationships or simply female – are watching very closely what happens to me; they will take cues from my experience about how successfully this company supports new parents.

I meticulously planned the 6 weeks prior to my parental leave. I gave people new responsibilities where it was needed and then conferred the appropriate promotions upon my return. It helped that we set up the situation for me to have a new role upon my return – nothing sucks more than to step in for a higher level person, do a great job, learn a great amount, and then be told that you have to go back and do your old job, thank you very much. Wait – I stand corrected. What sucks more is to continue to do a great job but not have an appropriate job title and/or compensation adjustment.

I’m not recommending that companies give everyone promotions because one person goes on parental leave. What I am saying is (1) plan well before your leave to minimize problems while you’re away, and (2) have a clear vision for what the next chapter is for you and others upon your return, and give people something to work toward in your absence. For us, it resulted in promotions – for other companies, it might be lateral transfers, rotations to different divisions to get additional exposure, classes for skill development, or pre-approved vacation time to clear heads and get rest after carrying extra workload for 3 months.

Whatever it is, write that next chapter with your team while the current chapter is still playing out. While I have a baby as my next personal chapter, I couldn’t ignore that I had to help write the next professional chapter as well.

Maternity leave planning in 3 (easy? hah!) steps

I’m 30 weeks pregnant, which means its countdown time! Not just until the baby comes, but more urgently, countdown until I have to leave the job and cross my fingers that the maternity leave planning actually worked.

How do you plan for maternity leave?

headscratch

#1, you have to inventory what you do and who you do it for, and get past the shock value of how freaking long that list is.

#2, you have to say who is going to have to pick up the slack, and get past the guilt of abandoning coworkers to scrounge up extra time and energy to fill in your gap.

#3, you prepare your clients well in advance to let them know that a plan is in place, and get past the hand-wringing that will undoubtedly come with stress and worry and imagining all the things that could go wrong.

See? Easy.

* * * * *

I work at a small firm, which means: (a) there aren’t a whole lot of bodies to pick up the slack, and (b) our margins are smaller, meaning we can’t just go out and hire a bunch of FTEs or temps to do the gap-filling (like you can do a hire-a-veep for 3 months anyway).

I need to come up with The Plan. I’ve never done this before. What is The Plan supposed to look like? Well, having been on the other end of people going out on parental leave with poor planning, I know what I don’t want.

  1. I don’t want to leave people without the background knowledge and materials to do the work well, and I don’t want to leave them without resources to find help or answers when they come across something they don’t know.
  2. I don’t want clients to feel like there’s a vacuum of knowledge or personnel support once I leave.
  3. I don’t want junior people to feel like they’ll be taking a step back in professional development once I get back, after they’ve stepped up and gained great experience by filling in for me.

So The Plan needs to address:

  • Carving out sufficient time to train others and collect materials and resources for them, and communicating the professional development opportunities available to junior staff through this process. (But adequate support and advisors have to be there for that to be successful.)
  • Presenting clients with the new project teams and doing calls and work together over the next two months to get clients comfortable and giving them a level of confidence that others at the firm can do the work reliably. (Ahhhh, but that last word is the key, isn’t it?)
  • Having a vision for what project teams and roles/responsibilities will be when I return. (What I call “the black box” since I have no idea what that vision is.)

And TA-DA!! A successful maternity leave plan. P’shaw, piece of cake!