- Phase I: Launch business
- Phase II: ?
- Phase III: Profit!
And you can’t blame the Gnomes for feeling that way, really. After all, kicking off a business is sexy: coming up with an idea, writing copy for a sales page, designing a slick web site, or… well, collecting underpants. Phase III is sexy (ask anyone who runs a business, and I’m pretty confident they’ll agree that profit is sexy). But Phase II? Decidedly not sexy. As my husband has pointed out on more than one occasion, there’s a reason there are no reality shows named “Deadly Numbers: Forensic Accountants.” (But just you wait, because now that I’ve said it, there’ll be one on the air next Fall. And you’d better send us royalty checks, Fox!)
The thing is, it’s in that unsexy middle phase that your business happens. That’s where you do your planning, your measuring, your improvements, your personnel management, and your accounting. You can have the best marketing in the world, but if your product is crap or your service is crap or your accounting is poor, you won’t make money in the long run.
This is where I come in. If you want advice on the sexiness that is marketing or sales or web design, there are approximately a gazillion resources for you. I don’t do those. I help with the frumpier, less glamorous work of making a business run, and run better. And it’s true that the minutiae of running a business may not be sexy, especially when you compare it to sales, or marketing, or using social media. But if you don’t execute well in Phase II, then you’ll end up bankrupt.
And that’s the unsexiest thing of all.
Irony: Some months ago, a friend of my suggested I should write a series of posts on how productive I am, and how I manage to to work on my new business while holding down a (more than) fulltime job and taking care of a teenager.
The very next day, the day job situation went from busy to ludicrous speed. Where it has stayed. Where it still is.
This has taught me something about myself: I have a tendency to go to work for companies where the culture appears to be based on the theory that we live to work and not the reverse. And I’m not good at fighting that culture. But I’m trying.
It’s also taught me that I have to make it a priority to keep this new business moving. Otherwise, I’ll keep putting it on the back burner until there’s no time left.
If you look around, you’ll see a lot of new (but old)posts. These are posts from my old blog, which I finally closed up. I warn you, there are likely to be broken links, and I’ll get those fixed eventually. But there’s also some great information. If you feel like browsing, go for it. But I thought I should point you to some of my favorite posts:
Happy reading! More content coming soon, along with some eC0urses.
The day job is sucking up more than its usual 10 hours per day this week, so I give you a freshened-up post from my old (and I mean old blog. Enjoy!)
“If you don’t understand that you work for your mislabeled ‘subordinates,’ then you know nothing of leadership. You know only tyranny.” (Dee Hock, VISA International)
Ever since I read this post over at Kathy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users, I’ve wanted to put my own spin on the “comma, stupid” subject. For business owners, I think the ultimate “comma, stupid” is, “It’s the employees, stupid!”
It’s easy to get distracted by what you think are higher priorities than taking care of your minions. But really, nothing should rank higher than the care and well-being of the people who look to you for guidance, support, and career development.
There are some situations that practically beg you to do the wrong thing by your minions. I like to call them the Pits of Employee Despair. But just as Westley and Buttercup figured out how to avoid the three terrors of the Fire Swamp, you can avoid these Pits of Employee Despair. Awareness is really the key; if you plan for these situations, you’ll be able to skip right around them.
Pit of Employee Despair #1: The Annual Performance Review
First off, let’s note that it’s called an annual performance review and not annual performance news. The word “review” is the key here; it implies that you will be reviewing feedback that you provided throughout the year. You must never, under any circumstances, write something in a performance review that will be a surprise to the employee. If you make it a habit to hold onto little nuggets of performance issues until review time, then shame on you: you should quit your job and never manage people again. Seriously.
The no-surprise rule is even more critical if your business indulges in the Dilbertian nightmare known as the self-evaluation: if you ask your employee to review himself and then pass his self-assessment to you, it will be demoralizing in the extreme if your final version bears virtually no resemblance to his. And he’ll resent you for it – with plenty of justification.
To avoid this pit, keep a dropfile on each employee. When she does something great, drop a note in the file. When she does something not-so-great, drop a note in the file. After a coaching session on a performance issue, drop a note in the file so you can refer back to it as needed to see if the issue was sufficiently corrected. Now, instead of scratching your head at year-end, trying desperately to remember contributions, stated goals, and problems, you’ve got it all at your fingertips. And please – don’t nitpick here. If you addressed a development need during the year, and the employee made the progress you wanted, it doesn’t need to be added to the review (unless it’s to mention it as a positive, in that the employee made the necessary improvements).
And another thing: provide reviews in a timely manner. I’ve worked with people who didn’t get their reviews until months after the due dates, and that’s just unacceptable. Your employees deserve to know – before they get their first new payroll check – the amount of their merit increases.
For extra credit, give your employees copies of their performance reviews to read a day in advance of your meeting; this gives them the opportunity to note any questions or comments. It also gives them time to get their emotions under control before you meet (particularly important if it’s not a great review).
For super-duper extra credit: do away with the annual performance review. It’s an antiquated procedure that adds no value to anybody. Instead, manage your minions’ performance throughout the year.
Pit of Employee Despair #2: I’m Not Paying You to Think, Dear
Unless you’ve been blessed with the most self-motivated and experienced team ever, your minions probably come to you for guidance and direction from time to time (and if my experience is any indication, those requests will always come when you’re in the middle of twenty different things). It’s very easy, when you’re swamped, to simply answer the question and move on. It gives the minion the information he needed to move forward, and it gets you back to what you were working on before. Everybody wins, right?
Well, not so much, as it turns out. Have you ever noticed that people will often figure out the answers themselves once they spend a little time talking through an issue? By spoonfeeding the answer, you’re depriving them of the chance to think for themselves. You’re also depriving them of knowing that you trust them to come up with the right answers. And while spoonfeeding may take up less time right now, you’ll save loads more time in the long run when your minions can make decisions on their own.
I know how easy it is to fall into this pit – I fought it all the time when I was a corporate manager. But it’s worth fighting, because staying out of this pit gives you independent minions who save you time and money.
Avoid this pit by taking the time to ask the employee what he thinks; ask him what direction he thinks he should take. Ask him what decision he’d make if it were his call. And then – unless his suggestion is completely unreasonable – let him do it.
Extra credit: Have some documented guidelines about what decisions your minions can make on their own vs. what decisions need your input. Then leave ‘em to do their work, and make adjustments when you need to.
Pit of Employee Despair #3: The Incommunicado Effect
Yes, you probably have too much to do. Yes, that’s unfair. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass to try and keep up with e-mail, and blog reading, and Twitter, and Facebook. True, not every message requires an immediate response. True, you’d get nothing else done if you read every message the second it arrives in your inbox. I get it, believe me. But you can’t just ignore messages from your minions. When you don’t respond to an e-mail in a timely manner, that does not send the message that you’re terribly busy. Instead, it sends the following messages:
You cannot manage your workload
You don’t care about [insert subject of message here]
The person sending the message isn’t important enough for you to care what he has to say
Not good, am I right? So what are you to do when you really are swamped, and can’t catch up? How about the Out of Office message? Tailor it to say, “I’m in the office this week, but up to my knees in TPS reports; if your matter is time-sensitive, please call me or stop by my office. Otherwise, I’ll get back to you no later than [insert drop-dead date here].” It’s not the most elegant solution in the world, but at least then people can’t say they were left hanging for a week, right?
Extra credit: Have a rule about responding to email (I respond to emails within 1 day), so you have a little breathing room.
Pit of Employee Despair #4: We value your contribution to the company… what was your name again?
You need to relate to your minions in a way other than “I, Tarzan; you, Jane.” Just as you have a life and interests outside the office (you do have a life and interests outside the office, don’t you?), so do your minions . Wouldn’t it be nice to know a bit about both? Wouldn’t it be helpful to know that Steve is going through a messy divorce, and that’s why he’s been a bit moody lately? And don’t you think that your employees are going to feel much better about working with you if they feel as though you genuinely care about them as individuals rather than just their job descriptions?
Avoid this pit by engaging your employees in conversations about their real lives; take them out to lunch once in a while, and don’t talk shop. If you know that someone is having a rough time, offer to let him use your office as a safe place to vent or get away for a few minutes. In other words, act like a human being.
Extra credit: if a minion is having a really shitty time, how about giving her a day or two off with pay? You’d be amazed how much goodwill and loyalty you’ll earn just by being nice. That loyalty will more than make up for spending the few bucks. Just sayin’.
Pit of Employee Despair #5: You screwed something up; I’m not going to tell you what, but you’d better fix it!
Few things bug me more than vaporxpectations. Vaporxpectations are those undefined, uncommunicated requirements for success in the job. Folks, it’s not realistic to tell a minion that her performance is below par if you never told her what par is to begin with. If you hire a new employee, give him no clear definitions of success vs. failure, provide him with no guidance as to what decisions he can make independently vs. what decisions you need to make, and said employee doesn’t perform well, it’s not his fault; it’s yours.
Set clear expectations around performance metrics, target dates, communication, decisionmaking authority, etc. Meet regularly with your employees to fine-tune their performance. Tell them when they’re doing well. Tell them when they’re not doing well. Give them the very same courtesy you expect from your customers.
Extra credit: When a minion makes a mistake, look at it as an opportunity to learn something. Unless you’re the boss from Hell, none of your minions screw up intentionally. They want to do a good job. So when a screw-up happens, use it as a learning experience. In other words, don’t lose the lesson.
And if you should fall into one of the Pits of Employee Despair (and you probably will, sooner or later), then take corrective action. Go to the minion and apologize. Tell her what you did wrong, how you’re going to fix it, and what you’re going to do to keep from doing it again. Demonstrate the kind of accountability you want from your minions. Remember that you work for them just as much as they work for you – unless you want to be a tyrant, in which case I’d suggest you start watching your back.
Back when I did a lot of theatre, I studied The Method. So did a lot of actressy and actory types, which led to amusement when everyone was walking around asking, “What’s my motivation?” Answer: You don’t want to be fired, you pretentious little weasel. That’s your motivation.
Yeah, it sounds (and sometimes is) pretentious, but “What’s my motivation?” is a really powerful question. In acting, in business, and in life.
What are you trying to do?
I don’t necessarily mean what are you trying to do in your business?, or what are you trying to do to make more profit? I mean: why did you start your business? What do you want to achieve that your business gets you closer to?
Hint: it isn’t money
Well, I hope it isn’t just money. Because if your biggest reason for starting a business is to get filthy, stinking rich? You’ll never be satisfied. Because there’ll never be enough. And if your biggest reason for starting a business is to get filthy, stinking rich, I’m not sure that’s a powerful enough motivator to keep you going when the going gets tough.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. You want more freedom, more time, and more money. But why? Those aren’t the real things you want, are they? What you really want are what more freedom, more time, and more money will let you do, that you couldn’t do before.
What I really want is to direct
Why are you really doing this? What’s the thing that keeps you going, even when it seems impossible? When you have a goal that’s bigger than you, and bigger than your business, that can help sustain you when the forces of evil (or, um, the bad economy) get you down. For me, it’s about finding the time and freedom to change the world in ways that really excite me:
- Job skills training for people who need it, which leads to…
- Helping people find meaningful work that will sustain them.
- Finding ways to make real education more available to children (instead of the “memorize, then regurgitate factoids and be good little sheeple” that passes for education nowadays).
- Most important: showing my son (instead of telling him) that life can be lived on his own terms, instead of by following the standard party line to “success.”
That’s why I started Biznicillin. That’s why I work my ass off to make a profit. That’s why I’m here.