Where Do We Go From Here?

In the US, we have reached the point in the Covid-19 pandemic that more cities and states are issuing shelter-in-place orders every day. This is creating a substantial hardship on our nation’s small businesses. While there are government programs available now to provide aid (you can easily find these via Google), it still is going to be a while before we get back to normal. For now, we need to survive.

While we are busy surviving, we need to be thinking about not only recovering, but about what fundamental strategic and tactical changes we can make to our businesses to be stronger for this pain. We cannot simply go back to what we were. The economy will NOT be what it was prior to the pandemic. A recession will still be taking place for several months even as we climb out of it. What do we need to do?

Right now, conserve your cash. Take government programs, offer discounts, cut back hours and reduce expenses as needed. I will suggest that, if you cut hours or enact layoffs that you, as the owner, participate in a bigger way than your team. Lead by example.

Concurrently, research what your industry has looked like as recessions of the past have come and gone. Make needed adjustments. If you aren’t sure how to make the needed changes, get a mentor/coach. Use every resource you can get your hands on to restructure and re-tool. Be ready for whatever is next.

The changes won’t be the same for every industry. Some industries are counter-cyclical; they do better when the economy is down and consumers pull back spending (think fixing your car vs. buying new). Others will have an extended recovery timeframe. They will need to market hard, and get creative about products, services and delivery channels to stay “in the game” until the economy improves.

We cannot assume that what worked before will work now. Access every resource you can in order to lead your business back. Don’t be shy. Be bold. Your team and customers are counting on you.

In What Roles Do You Also Lead?

Over the course of time, I have read numerous books on leadership and have attended trainings, as well. Without fail, all of them talked about leadership at work. Perhaps that was due to purchasing bias on my part because I wanted to be the best leader I could be in my career.

Being in the midst of my 60th trip around the sun, I find myself being more reflective. Not so much to second guess my past, but to make sure I get the final chapters right. One of my very recent reflections has been centered on where, besides at work, have I been a leader and where have I been the best leader. There are two non-work parts of my life that called me to be a leader: my family and my church.

As for my church (churches, actually), I have held leadership roles since our very first church in Greenfield, WI back in 1985. I held various leadership roles in different functions. Over the years, the health of the areas under my leadership seemed to improve. Of course, it wasn’t so much what I did as it was what God did through me, so I really can’t take any credit. Still, with God’s ample assistance, I think I have led well in those rolls.

In my business career, I’ve had positive impacts on my employers and my businesses over the course of time. Stumbles were many, but I kept getting better and the businesses grew more profitable. I was blessed to have really good people with which to work (both as bosses and as co-workers) and we accomplished much. Hopefully, I had some level of influence upon those successes.

Upon a lot of reflection, the most important leadership opportunity that I have had was in my family. If I am honest, however, it’s in this role in which I think I’ve done my poorest job of leading. One could say that a family is the most complex and demanding of these three leadership roles. That could be true, but that really is no excuse. The fact of the matter is that it’s been the leadership role for which I was the least prepared…and the one that scared me the most.

We are all driven by something. That “thing” for me has often been the fear of failure. I don’t know what it is for me about leading my family that made me flinch, but I did. In business, I attacked and shored up my weaknesses. In church, I gave God my hands and my heart and let him use me. But at home….I just felt inadequate.

I don’t share this with you to pout. My main conclusion from this reflection mirrors advice that I give my coaching clients: NONE of us knows everything. I tell them to build on their strengths and hire to fill in for their weaknesses (either via employees or mentors). In my personal life, my loving and patient wife has filled in for all my holes as we raised our family. Our sons have turned into fine young men and I simply cannot describe how proud of them I am. She is that perfect example of surrounding ourselves with team mates that complete us. Of course, I didn’t hire her (I doubt she would have taken the job). Instead, God saw in her exactly what I needed and He put us together. Perhaps, he saw in me exactly what she needed, too. Together we led our family. We had each others’ back and we pressed onward. She is my greatest blessing. On this Valentines week, I celebrate her.

Who fills in your holes? Celebrate them!

Time For Some Adult Supervision

Last night, a client who is also a good friend and a brother in Christ messaged me. He asked, “Do you think there is any chance of civility in this country anymore?” Figuring he was referring to the SOTU dust-up I replied, “There is always a chance, but the 2 parties’ leaders need to show the way. Pelosi and Trump won’t get that done. Both are petulant children.”

Now, depending the side of the aisle on which you sit, you may not like that last statement. Well…the truth hurts and that statement is the truth. We have fallen into this mode of “if you don’t agree with me then I must hate you.” That is a massive fallacy. We don’t have to agree with everything someone believes, in order to extend brotherly/sisterly love to them. Jesus reminded us in the second part of the Great Commandment “…love your neighbor as yourself.”

In politics, in society and in business we are NEVER going to agree 100% with those around us. But to succeed in any endeavor, we must work together and that requires a little grace, a little mercy and a whole lotta love (to quote Led Zeppelin). As leaders, it is our duty to model that behavior and show the way. Let’s start today!!

Lonely at The Top

There are a lot of old sayings about leadership that allude to the lonesomeness of leading people. For example, “It’s lonely at the top.” Or, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Also, “Leaders are like eagles. They don’t flock together; you find them one at a time.” It’s ironic because leaders, by definition, have to have followers. In larger organizations, the leaders are surrounded by people yet can, and do, still feel alone.

While there is a tendency for all leaders to feel this way from time to time, it does NOT have to be a constant in a leader’s life. In my observations and personal leadership experience, one of the biggest mistakes we make as leaders is in assuming that we have to have all the answers. The reality is that this point of view is putting undue pressure on ourselves. NOBODY knows everything.

We all have holes, blind spots, weaknesses, whatever you want to call it. Yet, the people that surround us have brains too (yes, it’s true)!! We need to be better at inclusively tapping into those brains to improve our organizations. This releases the self-imposed pressure of “knowing-it-all” and….it lifts up our team and shows how much we value them. What a powerful innovation engine that creates!

Hiring and Firing: Who’s to Blame When it Does Not Work Out?

About 18 months ago, I interviewed a candidate for a position that I had posted on the internet. He had the proper qualifications and enough experience to warrant a visit. Since I was out of town and did not want to slow down the process, I scheduled a telephone interview with him.

As we began the interview, everything was pretty typical with me asking questions based on his resume as well as more probing questions about how he had handled certain situations in the past. As we neared the end of my questions, I asked if he had any questions of me. His first question went something like this: I have been checking around town and it sounds like you have been hiring someone frequently for this same position. Everyone seemed to think this must be a difficult place to work if people keep leaving.

I smiled (which he could not see over the phone) and replied that, indeed, we had gone through a few people in this position. However, the assumption people were making was a poor guess. I explained that the reason we had been re-hiring for the position is because I had to fire all but one of the people that I had hired. The lone exception left us to take a management job elsewhere that I simply did not have available. There was silence on the phone and I suspected that I had just scared the heck out of the gentleman. I quickly continued that this was because I had done a poor job in the hiring process. Once I realized the mistake, I quickly had to step up and start the process to fix my error.

I’ve been hiring people for 30 years; either for companies at which I worked or those that I have owned. I seem to be better at hiring some positions than others but, in totality, I have not exactly been a rock star at the process. Turns out, I am not alone. Even when I hired on behalf of large employers who used the latest psychometric tools, we only hit on about 60% of them. I don’t know what the average is currently, but I suspect it is still not much better.

So, like any other business problem, this is a leadership problem. When we hire the wrong person, it is incumbent upon us to not let it drag on as that does no good for the employee nor the business. It’s not easy on either party at the moment, but it is better long term for each party to find a better fit. If you make a mess, it’s your job to clean it up.

FYI, I did not hire that particular gentleman. We did find a person for the position and he is coming up on his 2nd anniversary this Spring. I think we got this one right (knock on wood)!

Business Problems are Leadership Problems

I met a gentleman many years ago that I quickly came to know and trust. He taught me several great lessons. One of them came rushing back to me recently as a result of a situation that will take far too long to discuss in this forum.
If you are in a leadership position…take a seat. This one might make your BP go up. “All business problems are leadership problems.”
Not sure if he coined the phrase, but it has proven true throughout my career. I look at it in two directions: 1. If a business has problems (they all do), it’s because the leader has failed in some way (yep, that includes me). 2. Leaders are responsible to ensure that problems get solved.
OK, Leaders, if you are part of the problem are you ready to fix yourself and fix the problem?

Entrepreneurial Self-Awareness

It has been said that, “No man can gain perspective in the midst of his circumstances.”  This is especially true with small business owners.  With the success of their business being dependent on their every move, business owners have precious little time to assess anything beyond the tasks of getting work out the door on a daily or hourly basis.  Add to that the responsibilities of supervising their teams, reading financial statements (however infrequently they may be produced) and trying to ensure a steady pipeline of new business, and it’s easy to see why entrepreneurs have a difficult time looking strategically at their business (working ON their business) and, more importantly, their personal weaknesses.

That said, it is critical for business owners to carve out time in their over-packed schedules to do exactly those two things.  In order of importance, growing their self-awareness has to come first.  Until they gain a more in-depth understanding of themselves and create an executable plan to fill in their skill gaps, it isn’t particularly practical to attempt to spend a lot of time refining the business.  That’s not to say that much of working ON the business and gaining more self-awareness cannot occur simultaneously, but the lead dog has to get him/herself some perspective before real changes can occur.

Growing one’s self-awareness is a very brave undertaking for most business owners. I say this takes bravery because, in my time working with business owners (and being one myself), they usually have been the “Shell Answer Man (or Woman)” for their business for so long that they tend to think they have all the answers.  Of course, none of us have all the answers.  The key is to know what we don’t know and either get training to fill in that knowledge gap or hire people, either on staff or as mentors, to compensate for the holes. The most effective/efficient way to do this, in my experience, is to engage mentors to spend time, quiz and observe the owners in order to make recommendations as to areas that are not their strong suits.  

Only with better self-awareness can critical business assessments and decisions be made optimally.  Think about the difficulty of trying to decide if an expansion is appropriate for your business without adequate and honest self-awareness of the owner’s ability to lead this growth.  Similarly, how can one determine if the business is salable without being real with one’s self in determining what we do/don’t know about making a business salable?

If you are a business owner and have not spent the time to build relationships with trusted mentors, get started today.  Only by having someone looking at your circumstances from the outside can you be sure that your weaknesses are properly identified so you can improve yourself, and move your business forward.