Category Archives: Human Resource Management

A Big Fish in a Small Pond?

small business hiring corporate manager

Salmon Coming Home

Not long ago I read John Dini’s excellent blog post on importing a manager from a large organization into a small company. When I recently heard a tour guide comment on sockeye salmon migration, it brought to mind John’s exposition. Let me explain.

The tour guide had declared that as the salmon return from the vast ocean to the stream where they were hatched, they must make the transition from salt water to fresh water. He highlighted the fact that, as they entered the brackish waters near the mouth of the river or stream, they lingered – maybe days, maybe weeks – allowing their body to make some important adjustments to their new environment. [Although I have no empirical evidence to offer, I suspect the percentage of salmon making it all the way home has increased since the advent of those navigational apps for their cell phones. I mean, really, how do they find their way back? But I digress.]

It’s been my experience that a significant percentage of the Corporate Migrants decide to return to the sea, or are asked to find another body of water in which to swim.

As a business owner, you may have several good reasons for wanting to bring an experienced large-company person into your fold. Their background in systems, in planning, in structuring, and in thinking broadly about crucial decisions can be invaluable to a small business management team. If you are positioning the business for your own eventual exit, they bring an outside perspective and professional expertise that can be very attractive to a potential buyer. However, in the words of Paul Simon, “…a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” True of business owners, be they men or women. So don’t disregard the risk that the imported large catch can also be ineffective or even disruptive.

Like salmon, some who leave Corporate America are indeed returning home. They see small business as a better fit for them, for whatever their reasons, and they are correct. Others, however, are simply looking for a resting spot prior to returning to the sea. Your recruiting, hiring, and onboarding processes need to take this into account. Here again, you will likely be tempted to hear what you want to hear and disregard the rest because you consider the candidate such a valuable find. In truth, you may be flattered that they would even consider coming to work for you. Get past that. Dig deep to try to determine all the motivations for the candidate’s interest in your company.

Then, if you both agree to move forward, bring them aboard in a manner that allows them to acclimate. Both the migrant and the organization need time to make adjustments. They will probably see many areas where changes would strengthen your organization. But they also have the potential to damage a healthy culture in the process of pushing for change. You are the filter through which their initiatives must pass. It’s your job to help orient the new hire to a significantly different environment. If, after a fair amount of time in your brackish waters, they are not meshing, it becomes your job to return them to the sea. By that time, they have probabl come to the same conclusion, even if they haven’t yet admitted it to themselves.

I’m not saying you should never bring a Corporate manager into the fold. I’m saying be diligent if you do.

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What Will You Tell the Kids?

“So why did you fire Tricia, Dad?” Trevor knew Tricia’s son, and the story was already circulating at school. Pete didn’t respond immediately. When he did, he immediately felt that his answer was inadequate.

“She just wasn’t up to the job,” he finally said.

“I don’t know what that means” said Trevor as he headed out of the room.

That’s where the conversation ended. But Pete’s rethinking his decision had only just begun.

When you have faced a really tough decision in your business, have you ever considered how you would explain that decision to your kids?

A few CEOs find crucial decision-making relatively easy. Almost nobody finds making good crucial decisions easy.

If you want to not only improve your decision-making, but also improve your mood following a crucial decision, you might try applying “the kids test”. Regardless of the current age of your children, test your tentative decision by thinking through how you would explain the decision to your kids, once they have attained the age of reason (for some that’s about 12, for others, more like 42). Apply it to virtually all your tough business decisions. The circumstances surrounding my opening example drag the son into the conversation in a way that does not normally occur with your business decisions. That’s not important. Try forcing yourself to boil down your explanation of any decision to language that an innocent who does not work in your business would understand.

The reality is that your kids are not likely to ever ask you anything about your business or your career. OK, occasionally one will ask, but only when they think you’re on your deathbed. But that’s not the point. The mental exercise I’m suggesting can be an effective tool for you.

Try it right now. Pick a tough decision you’re in the process of making and implementing. Find a place where nobody except you can hear you, and explain – out loud – why you have made the choice you have made. Critique your own explanation, and do it over until you’re satisfied that your defense of the decision is fundamentally sound.

Let me know how it goes.

The Case of the Renegade Case

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I recently took a trip, several hikes, a brief leave of my senses and, finally, matters into my own hands. That’s a lot of “taking”, during which I learned a lesson about delegation. Lots of business leaders struggle with “the big D” and my sharing my personal experience might light a path or reduce some stress for you.

My wife (call her Karen, since that’s her real name) and I took several days to relax at a resort 130 miles from our home. The morning of our return trip, we packed the items we would be bringing home from the condo, hopped in the car, smiled at the blue sky, and had a series of really good conversations over the next two-and-a-half hours. Got home, unpacked, and then…are you familiar with that sudden realization that you’ve overlooked something really important? For my body, it manifests itself north of my neck. Kind of a numb feeling as my face flushes with reality setting in. Kind of warm too, but not in a good sense. I realized I had left my packed briefcase in the dining area on the floor next to the table and invisible from the front door.

I always travel with a briefcase. Always have. Can’t stand to be without useful files and magazines – not to mention my iPad – on any trip. Suffice it to say that this briefcase on this particular trip had not only interesting stuff inside, but also important and sensitive information…and did I mention my iPad?

Within minutes, I was on the phone, confirming that Housekeeping had recovered my briefcase. I quickly made up my mind to retrieve it the next day. Karen looked at me like I had just volunteered to cook dinner (i.e., in disbelief). Why would I travel 260 miles the next day, knowing I am still rebuilding my body from a back injury that can be exacerbated by sitting for long periods of time in the same position, only to personally pick up a briefcase that could easily be overnighted to me?

At first, I couldn’t explain (at least not clearly) why I had already decided to personally retrieve the briefcase. She ignored me, called the resort, talked with Guest Services, and got them to agree they could retrieve the case from Housekeeping and get somebody to take it to the Post Office. When Karen persuasively told me this, it made some sense. I really wanted some of the contents ASAP, and if the resort reacted quickly, I could have them in my possession within 24 hours. So I called Guest Services. Kelsey explained that she was trying to reach the lady who drives the van to pick up and deliver guests as well as the mail, and that she was hopeful that Cathy would return her call soon. This was about 3:30PM on a Friday and I was aware that most small town Post Offices did not stay open all night. Long story short, within 30 minutes I learned that the briefcase could be delivered to the Post Office the following morning and I was advised I could call the Post Office directly to discuss overnight delivery or other special handling for returning the runaway briefcase.

What had started to seem like a sensible approach less than an hour previously now gave way to my overwhelming feeling that I had to personally get this thing done.

Can you identify with that?

I have worked with several hundred small business owners over the past dozen years, and the tension between Control and Delegation is almost always a stress point. Very few find it easy to delegate important tasks, even though they are aware that a successful, growing enterprise requires lots of delegation.

What I realized in “the renegade briefcase” caper is that, whether it be a personal or a professional challenge, the decision to delegate rather than maintain personal control involves more than simple reason and trust. It also involves instinct…your gut. And, as any nutritionist worth her weight in tofu will tell you, your gut is very important. Going against your gut can cause extreme discomfort.

My instinct that Friday became overwhelming. The world would not end if I did not have that briefcase back in hand for three or four days. But it would have been VERY inconvenient, and my world would have been filled with stress until I got it back. I would be counting on at least three different people, more likely five or six, to get the communications straight and to protect the contents of that case.

This episode caused me to reflect on a number of discussions with CEOs regarding their resistance to delegate certain responsibilities that seemed to me at the time to be no-brainers. For example, I once had a client who ran a $50 million business who insisted on opening all the incoming mail, every day. I now have a better appreciation for his gut.

This story is not a plea for you to delegate less and work harder than ever to grow your business. Rather, it’s intended as a stress reduction aid. You don’t have to justify driving 130 miles one-way to your wife, to pick up your briefcase. You don’t have to justify opening all the mail every day to your business coach. If you gain significant peace of mind, in addition to the certainty that the job will be done in the best possible way, then it’s OK to maintain control and do it yourself. Heck, if you simply enjoy writing software code or installing systems or stocking shelves, allow yourself some time to do that fun work occasionally. It’s your business, and it’s not supposed to be 24/7 stress.

Once you pick your spots, once you select the task or tasks you will personally handle, allow any ancillary benefits to accrue to help justify your decision – and provide additional peace of mind. In my case, seeing an April sunrise in Central Oregon was a big plus, in addition to the fact that 90% of my drive time was either through piney forest or up and down high desert buttes. I’m not used to that type of scenery, and I hope I continue to hold it in awe.

If you are willing to share your own thoughts on Control versus Delegation, please do.

Learn from the Presidential Debates

Tis the season for some folly – i.e., the presidential debates have only just begun. Those of us tuned in for some or all of the show are looking for information or entertainment or both. If you run a business, I would suggest that viewing can also offer an education in interpersonal communications.

Just like the general population, some political candidates are naturally outgoing, at ease as the life of any party. Some are naturally thoughtful, not particularly loud but, as with the EF Hutton of old, when they talk, people listen. Others are naturally contentious, reveling in a good fight more than a civil exchange of ideas.

The truth is that many of the voting public want a president who blends all these personality characteristics appropriately, depending on the circumstances. But that’s a discussion for a future blog.

When it comes to debating, each participant must consider how well their natural behavioral tendencies will serve them. They will become a chameleon during the debate if and when they believe something other than their natural approach is required.

So, how is this educational to you?

Watch a few debates. Note which participants seem to be naturally aggressive and which do not. Note who comes across as thoughtful and prepared, and who does not. Compare the candidate who thinks well on their feet and moves smoothly with the ebb and flow of the discussion, with the one who appears to be cautious and a bit awkward when the subject changes.

The contrasts I’m raising are in no way intended to imply that any one trait is preferable to another in a President of the United States. Again, that’s a topic for another day.

But, if you take the opportunity to relate your debate observations to your own behavior in your organization, it should be educational. You’ll recognize more clearly your own style. You’ll recognize that you are more credible and more relaxed and generally more effective when operating within your natural style. (Because you’ll notice that anyone assuming the role of chameleon in the debate – i.e., stretching to be somebody they are not – turns an unattractive shade of green or brown.) You’ll realize that when you feel forced to modify your style significantly, your stress goes up and you become less effective interpersonally. Or worse, you embarrass yourself.

Next time you watch a debate, notice how uncomfortable an aggressive candidate appears to be when they attempt to become thoughtful and low key. Notice how uncomfortable a contemplative candidate becomes when they attempt to respond to confrontation with confrontation. And make a note to self that you are much more authentic when you are able to stick close to your natural style in every business situation.

Long in the Tooth

Sometimes the primary job of the CEO is coachingI’m not all-in anymore. That was the latest expression from a business owner who is pondering his changing role in his business. Other lips have delivered the same message in different code: I’m not sure what my job is anymore or I seem to be focused more on my personal vision than on my business vision.

Business owners almost invariably reach a point where they are confounded about their own role in the business and not sure what to do about it. Occasionally this is an indication that it’s time to sell or give away the business. More often, however, the owner is not interested in retiring just yet – only in finding his or her appropriate role in a business that has evolved over time.

In the great American pastime of baseball, there is a parallel. As an example, Andres Blanco currently plays for the Philadelphia Phillies and is all of 31 years old. In baseball years, he’s getting a little long in the tooth. The Phillies are in a rebuilding year, and Andres is a utility infielder. The future of the team consists of younger infielders who are destined to eventually become starters at second base, shortstop or third base, if they aren’t already playing that role. Blanco plays all three positions well, but in this rebuilding season is playing an even more important role. He’s become a model for the younger players on how to conduct oneself as a major leaguer. He models and advises the younger players on everything from the hard work required for game preparation to handling post-game interviews.

That’s the parallel to the “I’m not all-in anymore” business owner. At some point, the greatest contribution you can make to your own business is to develop the younger talent. It’s to model appropriate behaviors, coach the younger employees who lack experience, and encourage those who are still learning and making mistakes. That often is a full time job for the long-in-the-tooth business owner. But even if it’s only half a job, that’s fine. Do it well, and spend the other 50% on the golf course or fly fishing or drag racing or traveling.

Andres Blanco, the mentor, will likely become a coach when he retires from playing. Coaching baseball, or coaching your younger employees…neither is a bad life.

Rebuilding Year(s)

The business owner CEO does not have the option of resigning.I’m a Philadelphia Phillies fan, which means I’m following the team with the worst record in Major League baseball right now (July, 2015). It’s a “rebuilding year” for the Phillies, a pretty rough period.

In baseball, a rebuilding year generally causes more than a poor win-loss record. Management changes are inevitable. Fewer fans attend the games. High-priced players are traded for younger, cheaper, potential-laden minor leaguers. In the case of the Phillies, all of this is happening, and more. The manager they brought on to see the team through this difficult transition grew weary of losing, and resigned. (That’s right. He wasn’t fired, he resigned.)

For the past six years, I’ve been coaching a CEO (we’ll call him Tom) who decided to take on a “rebuilding year”. Sales were flat, profits were meager and cyclical, and the competition was intensifying. Tom’s tendency was to try to do everything himself, and he longed to discover effective marketing and sales processes, areas that he considered to be personal weaknesses. His relationship with his business was unhealthy – his description: “I feel like a slave”.

Tom’s rebuilding year actually took about four. It included the following:

  1. Developed a new product that addressed a shift in customer preferences – earlier than was recognized by his competition.
  2. Pushed his VP Marketing & Sales hard to identify and grow new opportunities. When he didn’t, he was replaced.
  3. Took a personal interest in an area of marketing that was integral to their future success, and brought others in to do the work after he understood what was required.
  4. Through some trial-and-error, figured out how to recruit, hire, and mostly keep talented people needed to stimulate and sustain ongoing corporate growth.

It was a bumpy ride. The new product development effort sucked up resources that the company did not initially have (both human and financial). The development of a larger organization included the usual complement of bad hires and redirection. Boot-strapping the financing of the growth, rather than borrowing a bunch of money, caused serious frustration in the early going. But Tom persevered, knowing that neither resignation nor termination were options.

While the “rebuilding year” (four) is now in the rearview mirror, it’s not over. The vision that Tom developed for his enterprise has the entire team working towards “the next big thing” for the business. His bank account is healthy, his workforce is high caliber, and the team has a sense of direction. The need for rebuilding has been replaced by a drive to stay on top.

The Phillies should be so lucky.

By the Numbers

I’m going to go out on a limb. I know what talent is lacking in more of your employees than any other. It’s an ability to understand and work with numbers. Expense budgeting, price analyses, sales forecasting, reviewing a profit and loss statement or a product line margin analysis, understanding cash flow or a balance sheet, comprehending both the value and the burden of debt.

Whatever your business, I’m sure you have some really good employees,who do their jobs really well, whether they are dealing with operations or marketing or whatever. You’re able to get away with financial incompetence in most positions in your company. But if your management team lack facility with the numbers, we probably have a problem, Houston. 

If your succession plan or exit strategy relies on managers who are not able to read a balance sheet; who do not understand the long term impact of pricing to achieve volume; who do not appreciate the value of debt as a tool, or the suffocating crush of too much debt – if the keys to your successful retirement are in the hands of such staff, then both you and your business are in a bit of trouble.

If you are guilty of tolerating financial ineptitude, you owe it to yourself, your business, and your employees to turn it around. You may not have the capacity to personally teach a key employee how to deal with the numbers, but it really is your job to find some thing or some body that can.