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The Reality of Being an Entrepreneur

reality of being an entrepreneur

It is 7:15 am on a Tuesday. I’m sitting in LAX. I’ve been up for 3 hours, but feel like I didn’t sleep at all. My Uber driver made me car sick, something that rarely happens. A woman is eating, what I can only assume, is onions with a side of burger for breakfast only adding to my nausea. I have 30 minutes until boarding. The woman next to me asked what I did for a living. She then told me how lucky I was to own my own business, make my own schedule and be able to balance life and work.

Except I don’t feel lucky at the moment. I feel guilty.

Guilty because my child lost his mind this morning over me leaving. He got so worked up in fact that he made himself sick. Few things activate mom guilt more than hearing your child crying over you leaving and then walking out that door.

Because while I might be lucky for the reasons airport lady pointed out above, I’m also facing the reality of being an entrepreneur. Sometimes it hits me like a ton of bricks.

Being an entrepreneur is hard. Really hard. And while 90% of the time I love it, there are still days when I think it might be easier to just go back to a normal job. One where I….

Only have to focus on HR, not sales, marketing and finance too.

Can take a legitimate day off, turn off my phone and not worry about what may happen.

One where someone else is footing the bill for supplies, advertising and travel.

One where I work a standard 8-5(ish) and get to call it a day.

While these days of wondering what it might be like to go back into the regular working world are fewer and farther between than they were in the earlier days of my business, they still happen. I guess it’s a little bit of a pity party that I throw myself every once in a while and then move on. Move on because I realize that a normal job wouldn’t allow me to….

Work my work around my life, not the other way around.

Travel to multiple conferences throughout the year and meet amazing people. Most corporate jobs would only allow me to travel to one, if even that.

Be there for my son’s school plays, doctor’s appointments and sick days. Even if being there means he loses his mind the few days that I’m not.

I am lucky, but make no mistake. I work hard for this. As does every other entrepreneur out there. Every time someone asks me what it’s like owning my own business I first tell them how hard it is. Sure there are tons of perks, but it is not all glamorous. I’m guilty of looking at other business owners and thinking they have it so great only to remind myself that they worked their butts off to get where they are too.

And that they have days where they are sitting in an airport with the smell of onions permeating the air wondering if it’s all worth it.

It is. I know it is even if mom guilt is making me think twice right now. He’ll be fine. This is good for him…and me. I know this even if it doesn’t make it any easier.

That’s the reality of being an entrepreneur. If you are considering it, know this. While you will do some of the most rewarding work in your life, you will also work harder in less than sexy conditions than you ever have. You will stretch your mind and your resolve in ways that are hard to understand until you do it.

Enough of the pity party. Who can really complain about spending 3 days in Vegas?

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The Perils of Stop and Go Leadership

stop and go leadership

So the word perils may be a bit dramatic. I probably should say “the frustration of stop and go leadership” but perils makes for a better headline. An interaction with a client this week had me chuckling about this idea of stop and go leadership. An idea that, when I first started my business, used to frustrate me to no end. Now I’ve realized it is part of the job and while still frustrating, all I can do is coach to it and move on. Here’s what I’m talking about.

At least once a week I get a call from one or two of my clients who I now know are “stop and go leaders”. This means they call with an urgent project or hiring request or employee matter and they want me to get on it right away. We come up with a plan of action and hang up the phone.

I jump immediately on my part and maybe even move things around or stay up late working on, what seemed to be, an urgent matter. Then….crickets. Nothing for days or even weeks. When I send emails or texts (because introverts do not talk on the phone) they are blown off. What seemed so urgent is now, not. At least until it becomes top of mind for that leader again.

Stop and go leadership.

I used to get really frustrated by this, but now I’ve learned to identify stop and go leaders and work with them for what they are. When they call I no longer jump. I wait to see if they mention it again in a few days time. If they do, I’ll know it is something they are serious about. If they don’t, I wait until they get serious before putting any real effort in on my part. I have too much to do to jump at every “urgent for five minutes” ideas that one of these leaders get. And here’s the thing…

Their employees know it too.

It isn’t hard to realize who these leaders are. While on the surface leading this way may seem harmless, it isn’t. Leaders who I have called on this often tell me that they just get caught up in more important stuff and while this “thing” was important at the time, they didn’t realize the other stuff that was going to come up that took precedence.

An excuse. At times a valid one, but still an excuse.

Stop and go leaders lose credibility. Any sense of urgency employees may have once given their ideas, are lost after the first couple of “stops”. They are seen as reactionary and fickle. In short, they are not taken seriously.

And that can be a major problem.

Especially when it comes to things like disciplinary action.

Or recruiting.

Or new project implementation.

Or innovation.

Or really anything else the leader wants taken seriously.

I find that most leaders do not know they are “stop and go” leaders until it is pointed out to them. They don’t realize how jumping on and off a band wagon is hurting not only their credibility but productivity. Some of them even get upset when things are done months after an initial conversation not realizing that it was their stop and start mentality that drove the delays.

If you believe you may be a stop and go leader, then ask yourself if you find that you go down many paths but rarely finish any of them. Ask your employees if they find that you get fired up about a project or new idea, but that passion quickly fades. Ask them if they find that you are fickle and if they purposefully don’t react when you ask for something because they know you may change your mind tomorrow.

Then ask yourself what you are going to do about it. If it’s hurting productivity or your credibility then something must change. Think about how you might be more strategic in giving direction or how you might identify when things are really necessary to share and move forward or when you may need to sit on things for a while before getting everyone moving.

As mentioned, much of stop and go leadership is harmless, but for the things that matter, like a leaders ability to move a team forward, it can be crippling.

Have you worked for a stop and go leader? How did you respond to them?

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Leaders: Are You Really Listening?

A few months ago a CEO called and this conversation ensued:

CEO: “I’ve been told Frank is going to come into my office and complain about Steve. He thinks Steve is getting preferential treatment since we go to lunch together everyday. What should I tell Frank?”

S: “Well I think you should listen to what Frank has to say and see if he has any valid concerns.”

CEO: “Right, but he doesn’t.”

S: “How do you know if you haven’t talked to him yet.”

CEO: “Because Steve isn’t getting preferential treatment. I will just act like I hear him, say I understand his concerns and hope he gets over it.”

Now let me say that this CEO is one of the good ones. Don’t judge him by this interaction because normally he gets it. This was during a tumultuous time in the business and the CEO had many other things on his mind. He felt like he didn’t have time to worry about this and wanted it to just go away.

And it is during those times in a leader’s life when I find our capacity to really listen to anything beyond what our mind is focused on diminishes. This conversation with Frank and his issues seemed so minuscule to this CEO in light of everything else the business was facing that he just didn’t want to give it the time of day.

So he didn’t listen. He took the meeting, pretended to listen, thanked Frank for his time and didn’t give it another thought. Until it blew up in his face a few months later when he realized several people had the same perceptions of Steve and it created a rip in his leadership team that took a while to overcome.

Listening, really listening, is often the single most important thing we can do as leaders. We know this. We realize that we must listen. We have seen the memes and read the quotes about listening to understand rather than respond. We have heard speakers tout the powers of listening for decades. Nothing new. Nothing revolutionary. And yet…..

Today I received a call from a client who was in a similar situation. She knew that an employee was coming in to complain about something and wanted advice on how to handle it. More than likely, this employee just needs to get some things off her chest and so the first thing this leader must do is simply listen.

So easy and yet we make it so hard.

We all say we are good listeners, but I think what we often are doing is being patient. Patiently waiting for the person to stop talking so we can say we listened without actually doing it.

So I will ask you. Are you really listening?

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Why Favoritism is Hurting Your Small Business

favoritism

As much as we all know we shouldn’t, we do in fact, play favorites. The most experienced among us do not let it interfere with our work in a major way. But the reality is, deep down, there are those on our team we like better than others and if given the chance we will give preferential treatment. Even if that preferential treatment only amounts to the biggest slice on pizza Friday.

For others though, favoritism is a bigger problem. I find favoritism is more rampant in smaller businesses, especially family owned or where the CEO has called in long time friends to help build the business. I have even had CEO’s say to me that they will always give their sister/father/best friend from high school preferential treatment. They know it’s wrong, but they will do it anyway because it is their business and these are their friends and family.

And we should all take care of our friends and family right?

Even the most well intentioned CEO who hires her brother and has the “just because you are my brother doesn’t mean you are getting preferential treatment” talk can still fall trap to playing favorites. And it can negatively influence the business.

Here’s how.

It’s about the old adage of perception vs reality. I don’t buy into the premise that perception IS reality, but I do believe that a distorted perception can greatly affect reality (that makes sense right). The minute a family member is hired or a certain employee starts spending more time with the boss than the others, every other employees assumes they are getting preferential treatment. Even if they aren’t, the rest of the business assumes it is happening and starts looking for it. When you look for something hard enough, you can find it, even if it is solely perception based. Something from the bosses perspective that isn’t grounded in favoritism can be perceived that way from other employees.

Obviously this hurts morale and productivity. Why work as hard as Joe if he is going to get all the credit, good projects or higher pay anyway? One common perception that seems to rear it’s ugly head is that the favored employee never seems to work as hard, be as qualified or deserve the credit they are getting. Even if that isn’t true, the other employees always perceive that the favorite isn’t really that great and is only where they are because the boss prefers them over others.

For any company trying to build a culture of engagement, having the perception that certain employees are favored, will ensure they continually take one step forward and two steps back.

What’s even more interesting is the effect having a favored employee can have on employees at higher pay grades. If the favored employee is not a manager, other managers can feel awkward or intimidated by that person because they know the relationship gives that person a bit more power. This can become a very hard situation to navigate leading top level leaders who have been with the business from the beginning to think about finding success elsewhere.

The good thing is that these things don’t escalate to irreparable levels overnight. There are often warning signs that employees are disgruntled and believe an employee is receiving preferential treatment. I would encourage any leader to take these concerns seriously and not just brush them off because they don’t believe they are playing favorites. We often do it without realizing it until it is brought to our attention. Catching it early and modifying that behavior before it gets out of hand can save a leader a ton of headaches down the road.

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Leading Through Uncertain Times

leading through trying times

Regardless what side of the aisle you find yourself on, I think we can all agree that the past few weeks since the inauguration have been tumultuous. No one can predict what happens next. This uncertainty has many people nervous about the future.

And that uncertainty is affecting my clients.

Several have experienced drops in business – especially those who sell products or services that could be put off for a few months. For some of these, this drop in business has necessitated layoffs they weren’t anticipating. Others, specifically my clients with government contracts, have put a hiring freeze in place. Hiring freeze’s that ensure current employees are going to be overworked in the coming weeks.

Frustration, angst and uncertainty abound and likely will for several more weeks….or longer.

One of my clients said to me that it must make for good business times for me – and while it does, this is never how I like to obtain clients – when they are in turmoil. One conversation I’ve had several times in the last few weeks centers around how to lead during these times. One client asked it this way:

“I want to be able to reassure my remaining employees that we are ok. I want to tell them that the business is going through a down season and that we will pull through in a few weeks, but the reality is I’m not sure of that. There is no rhyme or reason to what’s happening and I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen in the future or if the business will even be here next year. How do I lead through that?”

It’s a hard line to walk. As a leader you want to be encouraging and reassure your employees that whatever the business is experiencing today is a short term set back that will be overcome. You also want to be honest and the truth of the matter is, you aren’t sure if overcoming is reality. You don’t want to scare employees to the point that they all dust off their resumes, but you also don’t want to leave them without a job unexpectedly. You have no idea if your thoughts of gloom and doom are just dramatic over-reactions or warranted and certainly don’t want to pass that on to employees.

I think it’s important to realize during these times that employees are not stupid. They know what is going on. As someone who spends a good amount of time recruiting, I can tell you that I hear from candidates every day who say they are open to new opportunities because they can “see the writing on the wall” with their current company and feel like they will be out of a job soon anyway. Employees know when business is declining and if they don’t have good feelings about how that decline is being handled, they are likely to start shopping. So the first thing not to do is act like everything is fine.

Regardless of what you do or how you do it, there are going to be employees who jump ship. There are however, always going to be employees (if you’ve led them right) with some sense of loyalty. It’s these employees you want to focus on. Encourage questions and answer them as honestly as you can without jeopardizing the business or creating a frenzy. Share the state of the business and what actions are being taken to overcome. It’s ok for leaders to not have all the answers. These times are often times when showing a little vulnerability will go a long way with employees. They expect you to lead. They expect you to fight. They don’t expect you to have all the answers right away. They don’t expect you to not be worried.

So while there may not be a one size fits all answer to how to lead through this, the important thing is to find the balance between being honest and having a plan. Being proactive and not reactionary. Being strategic with all decisions and focusing on what matters most for the health of the organization.

In that respect, leading through uncertain times really isn’t that different from every day. It just comes with a little more stress.

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Leading Through Small Business Growing Pains

small business growing pains

Businesses usually become clients in one of two stages. Either they are in startup or the very early phase of just beginning to hire employees beyond the founder or they have just experienced a jump in headcount rapidly and are experiencing some growing pains. Inevitably, the leaders of the organization tell me how unique their situation is and wonder if I might be able to help them put, what I call, people structure, in place.

When this happens, I start with the good news first. “You are not a special snowflake. Your business doubling or even tripling headcount in a few months and the proverbial stuff hitting the fan as a result, is actually happening to more companies than you can imagine right now. And it happens to new ones every single day.” It’s called growing a small business and in my almost six years as a consultant, I can tell you that the majority of small businesses who grow quickly, go through it. Things get tough for a while, turnover may spike, employees who were content before change and more questions than answer fill the already strained atmosphere. It is an environment I have walked into many times.

The process through is easy enough in theory, but much harder in application. It often requires major change and tough decisions. It often requires the founder of the business letting go in a significant way, sometimes for the first time in the business’s history.

In the majority of cases the cause of growing pains is due to lack of leadership structure. At least a leadership structure that supports the new amount of employees. People have been promoted, hired and moved around and somehow in the course of all of that, no one knows who reports to who or who is responsible for what. In the spirit of “getting things done” structure was sacrificed for efficiency. While efficiency kept up with customer demand, structure was left in it’s wake leaving an organizational chart that looks more like a winding road sign.

The founder now finds himself in survival mode. He is trying ti grow the business but keep things the way they are. Because the way they are is magic. Magic that helped him build the business and magic he is not willing to let go of. Even if it no longer works. Even if it is creating chaos. Even if it is creating an unhealthy organization that while successful now, will soon plummet. Founders still want to have their hand in everything, but they ran out of hands 40 employees ago. They want to be involved in every decision, but they have stepped outside of their area of expertise too many times to count. They know they need to let go, but it doesn’t feel right so they hold on, sometimes tightly, to as much as possible.

It is at this point that I encourage founders to get out of the business. That isn’t to say leave the company, but simply determine the area of their greatest strength, focus there and let the other leaders in place manage the day to day. It is astounding to me how many founders of extremely successful businesses say that they have no business managing people….and yet they are. It is likely that sales, business strategy, marketing or finance is the strong suit of the founder. Whatever that is, when the company starts going through growing pains, it may be time for them to focus there and let the leaders they have hired focus on the day to day.

During times of business growing pains, the founder may need to take a step back #smallbizhr Click To Tweet

It may sound incredible, but the reality I have watched play out more times than I can count, is that the minute the founder steps back and focuses on his strengths, some pains are immediately alleviated. There is just something about the big boss settling down that changes a tone.

After that, it is imperative that the next level of leaders determine the structure for the rest of the business. Where are the reporting lines drawn? Who reports to who and what department is responsible for what? Even if some structure was already in place, I encourage leaders to start from scratch. Take a look at all current department heads and ask if it makes sense that they continue doing what they are doing. Then that question should be asked of each employee. You are already in a bit of a painful time, if major changes are going to happen, it won’t hurt much to do it now. Better than stabilizing everyone only to shake them up again later.

Once the structure is decided upon and communicated to employees, quite possibly the most crucial part of all of this is to consistently follow it. Leaders jumping rank and communicating down the line while leaving out an important supervisor will only toss everyone back into chaos. Expectations must be set and people must be held accountable and then everyone, absolutely everyone, has to be consistent.

Once a leadership structure is determined, it is important to respect it.....consistently. Click To Tweet

Once these two things have been fleshed out, this is the perfect time to establish core values and behavioral expectations if those haven’t been previously established. I’ve talked before about leadership resets and working through these growing pains are excellent times to embrace a reset.

One final thing that is important to note about growing pains. Not everyone will make it through….and that’s alright. Even if it is someone who was an integral part of getting the business to were it is, it is ok if they don’t make it through. This is almost like a fresh start. A time to regroup and make changes that are necessary. Not everyone is going to like those changes, but if they are the right thing to do, the business must forge ahead without them.

The good news is that growing pains are common and survivable. The better news is that once the business has gone through their first one, the following ones will be much easier. The bad news, as you can guess, is that the first is not the last and growing pains, as in life, will always be a part of business.

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Three Things Leaders Can Always Do More

three things leaders should do more of

There are things in this world we can never do enough. Things we can always do more of and still reap the benefits. Exercise. Reading. Eating chocolate.

Ok maybe there is a limit on that last one, but there shouldn’t be.

As leaders, there are a few things we can always do more. Before you read this list I can tell you right now, not one of them are revolutionary. Not one will surprise you or be something you’ve never thought of before. Yet, these small things are often the ones we forget to do the most.

They are easy, and yet forgotten.

We don’t always need revolutionary. Sometimes we just need reminders.

Ask More Questions:
In the case of leadership, curiosity does not kill the cat and ignorance is not bliss. Leaders should constantly be asking questions. Questions around the work being done, the way it’s done, how it could be done better, ideas, opinions, concerns. Leaders should question deeply held traditions, cultural norms and accepted behaviors. The good, the bad and the downright ugly should constantly be questioned to see what could be improved. One more cliche that leadership debunks: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just because something is working in the workplace, doesn’t mean it’s working as efficiently as it could be.

Listen More:
Towards the end of the year I had a sit down with a CEO and one of his most valuable leader. This leader was on the verge of leaving as the two had been butting heads for a few months. The CEO asked me to sit in and be a moderator for the two of them. Before we walked into the meeting he said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about this meeting and I know that one of the things I need to do better is listen. I’m not a good listener. Every time you think I’m not listening can you remind me?”

So I did. Every time I thought he wasn’t paying attention and was only listening to respond rather than really understand, I tapped my ear. There were several points that the leader had been trying to make for months that the CEO admittedly only listened to for the first time that day and it changed the entire conversation.

We could all do a better job of listening to understand rather than respond. That is something there will never be enough of.

Praise in Public:
My first client of the new year is struggling with behaviors that she doesn’t want in her workplace and looking for ways to reinforce behaviors that she does want. We are looking at both her performance management structure and her recognition program, but the simplest thing for her to do to reinforce positive behaviors is praise in public.

In one of our early meetings we have listed the behaviors that she feels like are done some of the time, but she would like to see become part of the every day culture. While we will ingrain those behaviors into every training, performance discussion and rewards and recognition program we implement this year, I told her the easiest way for her to reinforce those behaviors is to praise them publicly every single time she can. Whenever an employee does something that she wants to reinforce, doing so publicly will do it faster than anything else. It doesn’t have to be a big production with cake and balloons, just a simple thank you in front of others can do the trick. The point is to make sure that employees hear what behaviors get praises from the boss.

All simple things. Easy things. Things we can always do more of and yet often forget to do at all….or at least forget to do well. Which of these could you do more of?

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When The Job is Bad, But the Training is Worth It….

hr_consulting_worth_it

A few days ago a friend and I were lamenting about the job where we met. We both spent a good amount of time in that job and both of us found the people and policies to be ludicrous. We look back now and wonder how we survived. Through all of that though, we both agree’d on one thing. Even though working in that environment was like working in the twilight zone, the skills we acquired and the lessons we learned while working there were invaluable. In fact, there is no way I could be doing what I’m doing now had I not worked there.

No way.

My husband had a similar experience. He worked for a company for seven years and came home miserable pretty much every single night. Now however, working in his dream job, he knows that the skills he learned during those seven years have completely prepared him for what he’s doing now and without it he would not be as successful.

And that’s often how it goes.

If I rank my jobs in order of my happiness level doing them (excluding running my own business as that’s in a class all it’s own), the jobs that I enjoyed the most, I learned the least and vice versa. In fact, in my very first job out of college, my supervisor said that very thing to me. He said, “I know this job is shit sometimes, but you have to decide if the training you are receiving is worth it.” It was. I didn’t realize it at the time because the job really was shit, but now I do.

I often finding myself repeating this to employees, friends and family looking for job advice. When you supervisor is a complete jerk and even looking at them makes you want to throw something, is the training you are receiving (including training around how to deal with difficult people) worth it? If the work environment is complete chaos and the business is still trying to figure everything out – hello every small business out there – is your skill set being enhanced through all of the chaos?

If yes, then maybe it’s worth sticking it out a little longer. If no, maybe a new job should be on the top of your New Year’s Resolutions list this year.

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The Great Divide of Perception

perception vs reality

In my role as consultant I often find myself in the middle. Between employee and supervisor, leader and leader, broker and company, CEO and everyone else. I can be counselor, coach and peace maker all in the same day, sometimes in the same conversation. Being an introvert (INFJ for you Myers Briggs types) I will dwell on these conversations in my mind for days. I will replay everything that was said, get mad at myself for things I should have said and thought about later and try to dissect the reason the parties said or acted the way we did. I’m amazed at how often their reaction came down to one thing.

Their perception of the situation.

More importantly, how different their perception of the situation was from the other party. Let me give you an example.

In an effort to help an employee work better with a supervisor they both agreed to sit down with me and talk about where they were both struggling with the relationship. The employee had a pretty common complaint in workplaces today, that the manager was a micro-manager. I asked the employee to give an example which he did. The manager had a very different version of that example. They remembered that situation so differently I had to make sure we were talking about the same incident. We were.

Perception.

Filters.

Scope of knowledge about the bigger picture.

All things that can affect how we see, think about and remember a situation after the fact. The great divide created by different ways of perceiving a situation can be detrimental to relationships.

And yet, neither are wrong.

The only way to bridge this great divide is to communicate. I tell leaders all the time to over communicate. When they think everyone understands the why, what, who and where, explain it to them again and ask them to repeat it. Not in a condescending, micro-managing kind of way, but in a way that allows employees to express any concerns, ask any questions or ensure they understand exactly what is being asked and why.

In the example that the employee gave, had the leader checked for understanding and allowed the employee to ask questions, the perception of micro-managing would have gone away. Had the employee simply asked the questions to ensure they understood, the leader wouldn’t have felt like they had to intervene which then gave that perception of micro-managing.

Head spinning yet?

I’m sure we’ve all heard the expression that “perception is reality”. I know I’ve spouted it a time or two in my career. I’m not sure I buy that anymore. I don’t think it’s as black and white as that. I think a better statement would be that “your perception is your reality” but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s another persons.

As though we needed another reason to communicate more often and well.

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One Question to ask Your Employees This Thanksgiving

thankful

I wrote a few weeks back about how Halloween provides leaders an opportunity to learn something they may not have know about their employees. Of course the upcoming holidays offer another opportunity for leaders to find out even more info from or about their employees.

In keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving, leaders can ask employees what they are thankful for when it comes to the work they do. That is, what are we doing well as your employer or what aspect of your job do you really enjoy.

It’s easy to hear the complaints. It’s usually easy to identify the things that aren’t working. It is equally important however to know what is going really well and what employees really enjoy. Leaders can then do a couple of things with that information.

Replicate the experience as often as possible for existing employees and use it in recruitment marketing materials to attract new employees.

So don’t let this holiday pass without having a conversation with as many employees as possible around what about their work makes they are thankful for. You might be pleasantly surprised with the answers.

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